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Best Practice Is The Only Answer

Against a background of disasters including Grenfell and high-rise fires in the Middle East, the need for supply chain collaboration for fire safety in new modern building design has never been more acute. Bob Glendenning of Sherwin-Williams Protective & Marine Coatings examines the issues.


Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of the Building Regulations ordered after the Grenfell Tower disaster found that the system being used by the construction industry is simply “not fit for purpose” and open to abuse.


Increasingly, the industry is using complex structural steel to meet the needs of modern city construction, and with it comes a more complicated supply chain.


However, there is no reason to accept shortcomings in best practice. Where lives and property are at stake, the structural fire engineering methods simply cannot be compromised.


Dame Judith’s interim report does not go into specifics, but it does say that the next phase, which is scheduled to be completed in the spring, will examine issues such as sprinklers, cladding, alarm systems and escape routes.


Meanwhile, building goes on. And we, along with other fire protection industry organisations, believe there is a gap in terms of best practice which identifies the steps to take for even the most complex structural steelwork and provides authoritative guidance for those in the supply chain.


Indeed, we are fully supporting a new initiative aimed to bridge these gaps created by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Association of Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) called the Plan of Works for Fire. This aims to ensure that there is a detailed specification for fire protection at the design stage and a schedule for fire protection throughout the construction process.


The process being developed will include mandatory sign-offs as construction progresses, with all information reaching the end-user to support adequate fire risk management.


As a further constructive step, the ASFP is working with one of its technical sub-groups and also with the British Coatings Federation on new Best Practice guidance for specifying intumescent (reactive) coatings. The guide is set to include a useful ‘tick list’ to assist specifiers and is due for publication very soon.


Intumescent coatings have contributed to the freedom of design allowing projects and buildings to be more interestingly shaped and fully glazed with the steel frame on show. You need only look at the skyline in London to see how these stunning buildings have grown in popularity and imagination in recent years


Like some other forms of protection, it is critical to the performance of these life safety coatings that the design of the applied thickness is carried out correctly. Put simply, if the thickness is not correct then the fire protection will likely not be adequate.


In recent years, and particularly over the past five to 10 years, the UK steel construction industry for medium and high-rise buildings has evolved rapidly. It is now commonplace to see long span construction, with fewer columns, coupled with down-stand cellular beam construction to incorporate services through floor beams, rather than below as was the norm some years ago.


This construction style brings several advantages, including more ‘lettable’ floor area, future-proofed spaces, lines of uninterrupted view, faster construction, reduced floor zone depths allowing lower building height and reduced cost or more available floors as a result.


However, the lines of communication become increasingly blurred between the various supply chain parties involved.


From the designer, to the specifier and to suppliers through to the installers and the building control officers, the detail can be lost, misunderstood, or not addressed at all.


One issue in the protection of steel structures, for example, is to assume the steel design output and subsequent ‘redundant’ load bearing strength and therefore the level of coating protection required. To under-estimate for any reason is a high-risk approach that should be questioned vigorously, only ‘actual’ design output should be used and be supplied by the project design team.


To assume a value to gain a competitive advantage or solve a challenge is not engineering. It is potentially risking life and property safety.


To put this into context, existing legislation under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, means those responsible for commercial buildings including the employer, owner, or any other person who has control of any part of the premises, must carry out a detailed fire risk assessment identifying the risks and hazards in the premises.


The responsible person usually has to call in a fire engineer or qualified (competent) person or specialist to assess the risk and make calculations about fire engineering design depending on the type of building, occupancy type and the risk.


Based on the findings of the assessment, building owners, managers or employers need to ensure that adequate and appropriate fire safety measures are in place to minimise the risk of injury or loss of life in the event of a fire.


The starting point here lies with the architect, and then the specifier for recommending the most suitable products and standards that they must reach. Responsibility cascades through the supply chain to the manufacturer, the installer of the products and those officers auditing quality and safety through to sign-off.


The fire engineer or consultant should also be factored in earlier rather than later by the project design team, and this is where problems can emerge. If the fire engineer is called in to assess fire safety when the project is at an advanced stage and the solution has to be ‘retro-fitted’ then this can be too late.


Working with the steel fabricator, the fire protection measures - as with other safety measures - can be developed effectively early in the development of the design, making consideration of the material, the requirements according to structural design, fire design and other parts of it, for example cellular beams.


The fire protection contractor may be considering on-site application or off-site depending on preference, so this too should be considered and how this may affect the process of fire safety measures.


The decision should also be made early in the process how the compartmentation for fire safety will affect detailing for the application of specialist fire coatings as well as any attachments that may be required. The specialist manufacturers - suppliers - need to be consulted in this process.


Running in parallel, the issue of insurance should be addressed. Has the insurer been consulted at the relevant milestones in the development, and has all relevant information been provided for them?


In making sure that the local fire and rescue service has been kept informed of the project’s fire design, the specification and materials for the fire safety officer to approve for reasons of access is recommended, once again as early as possible. Local authority building control should also be consulted at the most appropriate milestones.


In handing over to the owner or manager, is the development delivering what they expected, and is the design and specification meeting the required level of compliance through the process with all necessary certificates and approvals?


Only when this process has been completed can we know that the necessary steps have been taken.


We would like to see more formal, prescriptive guidance for the supply chain which ensures there is collaboration between the various professionals. This may be incorporated within existing Building Regulations (ADB), or separately.


The whole supply chain has a part to play, and we should all accept our responsibilities with due care.

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+44 (0)1204 521771

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