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706 General fire safety in residential blocks

Report ID: 706

Published: Newsletter No 49 - January 2018

Report Overview

A reporter discusses fire safety issues discovered during investigations of building defects in residential blocks.

Report Content

A reporter discusses investigations of all types of building defects in residential blocks. In some cases, this involved reported concerns regarding fire safety, but in a number of cases, fire safety issues were discovered while looking at other issues, such as a lack of or poorly fitted fire collars at floor level, poor detailing of plasterboard and fire boarding missing around steel frames. The reporter’s appointment typically includes specification and project management of remedial work with specialists appointed as necessary. The reporter feels, from their experience, that many fire safety issues are caused by:

  • A drive to minimise design and construction costs
  • Employing architects only at the planning stage and leaving the detailed cladding design to trade contractors with little coordination where different trades meet
  • A lack of knowledge on site.

The reporter is aware of projects where fire engineers have had early input but have not been involved during construction. In such cases, the contractor appears to have proceeded either with ignorance of the potential fire safety issues, or has made their own judgement to what is required without seeking specialist advice. On numerous occasions during remedial works, the reporter has had to stand on site with the fire engineer, building inspector and contractor to resolve fire compartmentation details which were not previously considered. The reporter feels that fire engineers often lack previous site experience and struggle to suggest technically robust and practical solutions. General detailing is usually fine, but as always, 'the devil is in the detail'.

The reporter often arranges for toolbox talks, to explain the basic objective of the remedial work, for the fire engineer to explain the specific fire issues and required remedial work, and for the manufacturer to explain how their products should be installed. The reporter states that even experienced tradesmen are surprised when the requirements of robust details are explained to them, and the reporter considers that often the tradesmen are ignorant to the importance of tasks they are undertaking. For example, tradesman and professionals are of the opinion that '2 layers of plasterboard gives 1 hour’s fire protection', without any knowledge of the technical requirement to ensure that boards, laps, supports and fixings all must comply with the manufacturer’s test conditions.

The reporter adds that there is often a lack of appreciation by owners/managing agents of the need to appoint a 'responsible person' or to arrange regular testing of key features such as Automatic Opening Vents (AOVs) for example. The reporter has been involved in investigations where, in buildings 10 years old, the fire mains were not connected, there was insufficient water pressure to ensure water could be delivered to the upper floors, or the outlets on upper floor landings were positioned such that a fire hose could not be attached.

The reporter summarises by stating that, in their experience, there is a lack of appreciation and coordination within the industry in relation to fire safety, which when combined with poor construction, is likely to result in fire safety issues with many modern residential blocks.

Comments

The reporter has clearly set out a range of fundamental problems and their statement echoes general feedback to Structural-Safety that there is considerable ignorance across industry of the complexity of fire protection demands in buildings. There is a lack of knowledge of the detailing required to assure compartmentalisation, poor inspection of the material installation processes, and thereafter, poor management of continuing functionality through the life of buildings. These factors must be emphasised continuously. Fire safety must be consistently stressed throughout design, construction, maintenance, use and, very importantly, when there are alterations. At all stages, the level of fire safety can be reduced by those not understanding the implications of what they are doing. More needs to be done to improve life safety in buildings. Experience and competence is one way of countering the risks but there needs to be more education at all levels to raise standards and understanding. Unique, and highly fire-engineered buildings, may have an increased risk of the important points not being understood in years to come. CROSS has received many reports listing concerns relating to designers not visiting site, contractors not following design intents, and essential information about buildings not being passed to those who may rely upon it to understand the building. It should not take a tragedy for these issues to be acted upon by industry.

 

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