Growing frustration over slow Government response as construction industry takes lead on fire safety post-Grenfell Tower tragedy

The construction industry has taken the lead on fire safety since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, while waiting for Government clarification, according to research conducted as part of UK Construction Week (UKCW).

The research looks into what has changed in construction practice since the fire in June 2016. It shows that a wide range of improvements have been implemented by the industry, but there is a growing frustration with the slow response from Government, despite a promise by the Housing Minister to ban combustible cladding on high-risk buildings.

Construction industry professionals report that they have most often seen changes in the products used for cladding, insulation and fire doors, as well as more demand for new fire testing of products. They also report changes to the way procurement policies, tenders and contract terms deal with fire safety issues and responsibilities.

While many of the respondents are monitoring Government advice and waiting for the outcome of a current review of Building Regulations, they are critical of the time being taken to clarify new requirements since the fire and the subsequent publication of the Hackitt Review in May 2018.

UKCW received detailed responses from respondents across all parts of the industry and reviewing current project designs and specifications, commissioning additional fire risk assessments on projects, and increasing training on fire safety, were among the wide range of changes that respondents are most likely to have implemented themselves.

When asked about their top three preferred changes to transform fire safety across all buildings (not just high-rise blocks or other high-risk buildings), the industry is not simply counting on new regulation – that comes sixth on the list of its priorities.

The first choice is greater involvement of an architect, Clerk of Works, fire engineer, the fire and rescue service itself or other professional adviser who would do a full fire risk assessment and ensure better design and specification. Many called for the end of contractor-led ‘design and build’ type contracts.

A close second is a change in the choice and attention given to materials being specified and used on all buildings, including many supporting the ban on combustible materials in exposed areas of a building, in particular cladding or insulation.

Third choice is the installation and regular maintenance of sprinklers and other active fire detection and suppression equipment into all buildings.

Six out of 10 respondents are confident that post-Grenfell, the UK’s approach to fire safety in all buildings will change for the better. Contractors, specialist sub-contractors and building products suppliers are marginally more confident than other groups (with an average confidence score of 7 out of 10).

Nathan Garnett, event director at UK Construction Week, said: “Our research shows that the industry has taken to heart every opportunity to change its practice and is already well along a process that will change the way all buildings are procured, design, built and maintained.”

The issue will be discussed widely at UKCW, he said, and is likely to remain the highest agenda item for years to come. He added: “While confidence is quite good at this time, we must do all we can to maintain the positive attitude and momentum behind these changes.”

Geoff Wilkinson, managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants, a fire safety and building standards expert and one of the speakers at this year’s UKCW seminar on quality in construction post-Grenfell, said: “It is very encouraging to see the industry getting on with it, despite the hiatus from Government. But what’s needed is an industry-wide coordinated response.

“The ban on combustible materials is long overdue. We need to be told why it has taken over a year to get to this point when a very simple changing of regulatory guidance could have achieved the same thing in days.”

The UKCW seminar on this topic takes place on Wednesday 10 October. Other speakers at this event include Jonathan O’Neill, managing director at the Fire Protection Association, Peter Capelhorn, deputy chief executive and policy director at the Construction Products Association and Claire Curtis-Thomas, chief executive of the BBA.

UK Construction Week is the largest trade event for the construction industry, taking place at the NEC from 9-11 October 2018.


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