The government recently published amendments to the Approved Document B . Fire sprinklers are now mandatory in any high rise flats that are higher than 11 metres, when previously it was from 30. A historic change in the right direction for fire prevention in residential buildings.
Last month marked the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and the call for change in how fire prevention is managed in high rise buildings is finally being heeded. Although this is good news for the fire industry and the country as a whole, we still have a long way to go until residential properties are made completely safe from fire.
The Approved Document B amendments, along with others, have been in the pipeline for a long time. In April 2020, the government published its response to the building safer future consultation which was a direct product of Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, published in 2018 and commissioned by the Government in 2017. In the last few months, the government accepted 53 recommendations from the report and has been in favour of 871 responses in the consultation, which sanctioned not just an overhaul of the system but an entirely new regulatory system. This three year process also triggered the improvement of the Approved Document B, which states that sprinklers must be implemented in buildings that are more than 11m above ground level from the 26th November 2020. Any new residential and mixed-use buildings containing flats, or even work carried out on existing buildings from this date, will be obliged to follow the new legislative update and install sprinklers. The amendments also recommend that a review of the current fire system “may also be necessary” for buildings that are having extensions or work carried out from November 26th.
What’s more, the government has stated that further updates are envisaged in the future to implement further safety requirements. Parliament has also been considering a “Fire Safety Bill” which will amend the Regulatory Reform Order 2005 and provide greater clarity on the duties of the responsible person or duty holder for multi-occupied residential buildings. Once the bill is passed, the duty holder will be solely responsible for managing and reducing the risk of fire for common areas and the structure of the building.
As CEO for a fire sprinkler manufacturing company, the updates to the Approved Document B and other fire safety reforms couldn’t have come soon enough. I, and many other voices in the industry, have long been campaigning for stricter sprinkler measures for high rises, especially since Grenfell Tower. A compliant and correctly installed sprinkler system can detect and control fire at the early stages of an incident and has time and again proven its value when protecting lives and property.
The amendments mark a major success for industry organisations and lobbies, including BAFSA, NFSN, BSA, EFSN, NFCC and FPA, who have been tirelessly calling for change before and since Grenfell. Many fire fighters and fire industry professionals have also been sounding the alarm for decades, including Stuart Ruckledge, Staffordshire Fire, who correctly highlighted that our current definition of a high rise was unclear. These insistent voices have helped push the government to action and is why we are now seeing historic action. However even if we have seen what the government has stated is “the biggest change in building safety in a generation” now is not the time to put our foot off the pedal, now is the time to move into second gear.
Although the amendments mean we are heading in the right direction there is still much more to get done. Work must now be carried out on improving installation standards and approval schemes for residential sprinklers. I, and many industry experts, want residential sprinkler regulations to be more in line with commercial systems. It cannot be right that commercial systems are more resilient than residential properties where we live and spend most of our time. Sprinkler installations in the UK are almost always designed in accordance with both BS12845 and a compliance and approval scheme such as LPS 1048 and the accompanying Red Book. This only allows the use of approved equipment and products to be used and in addition, only contractors certified against the scheme can install them and sign off the installation and commissioning certificate to prove compliance.. However, the same stringent regulations do not apply within residential installations (BS9251), where you can still meet standards using non-approved or certified products and there is no requirement to be certified or audited. Testing and maintenance is also less frequent than their commercial counterparts. Surely, if these higher standards apply to commercial property, we should do the same for residential homes, where risk to life is arguably higher?
I am aware that further change is already approaching. The revised standard BS9251 is now out for public consultation and is now more focused on residential building up to and over 45m, something that the new European standard for residential sprinkler systems EN16925 does not cover. Also, the need for proving competency for installers on residential sprinkler projects is being addressed which I believe will have a positive impact on the consistency of installation. Although, the fact that sprinklers are only required inside the flats and not the common areas is fairly short-sighted, taking into account the additional cost would be minimum and far outweighs the added risk of not protecting these areas.
To avoid another high rise block disaster there’s still more to be done. As BAFSA correctly states, it is a “legal obligation that building owners ensure these systems are tested, maintained and serviced to ensure the system is effective and in good repair.” With the ever increasing work load in residential sector since Grenfell now is the time to ensure that installation practices are more stringent than ever. It is not enough to make sprinklers obligatory in high rises, the systems themselves need to be correctly installed and checked by competent professionals to ensure they are functioning correctly and properly maintained.
As the saying goes, we shouldn’t run before we can walk. And although I, like many of my colleagues welcome the amendments and all the reforms the government is putting in place, we all know there is still a long road ahead in keeping buildings and the people that live in them safe from fire.
CEO of Project Fire