Overhauling the rulebook: RIBA’s new fire safety guidance

Ross Davies 23 October 2019 (Last Updated October 4th, 2019 14:33)

At the end of last year, the RIBA unveiled a draft of its Plan of Work for Fire Safety, in direct response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and subsequent Hackitt Review. Proposing the streamlining of fire safety practices earlier on in the design process, could it give the industry some much-needed clarity over its obligations? Ross Davies reports.

Overhauling the rulebook: RIBA’s new fire safety guidance
At the end of 2018, the RIBA unveiled a draft of its Plan of Work for Fire Safety, in direct response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and subsequent Hackitt Review. Credit: Natalie Oxford

Its blackened husk may be now shrouded in white sheeting, but the site of Grenfell Tower remains a stark reminder of the lethal impact fire can have on buildings and lives.

This June marks the two-year anniversary of the blaze that ripped through the 24-storey west London tower block, claiming the lives of 72 people. It stands as one of the worst disasters in modern UK history, prompting recriminations and heated debate around the safety of residents living in high-rise residential buildings.

Last year saw the completion of an independent review of building regulations and fire safety, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, an engineer and former chairwoman of the Health and Safety Executive, a government agency. The Hackitt Review recommended a complete overhaul of current building regulations, advocating the creation of a new authority to govern safety risk in tall buildings.

Response to the review has been mixed across different industries. While the government has pledged to implement Hackitt’s recommendations, others believe it doesn’t go far enough. Labour MP David Lammy denounced the review as “a betrayal and whitewash” on account of it stopping short in the outright ban of flammable cladding – identified as a primary cause of the spread of the fire.

Shake-up: The RIBA takes its cue from the Hackitt Review

Broadly speaking, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has welcomed Hackitt’s proposals as a necessary wake-up call for the industry.

“I think she did a very good job,” says Paul Bussey, a technical consultant at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. “She did exactly what was required of her, which was to give the industry a shakeup.”

At the end of last year, the RIBA unveiled its Plan of Work for Fire Safety, which incorporates several of the Hackitt Review’s key recommendations across the seven stages of a construction project, from briefing and concept design to construction, handover and end use.

Among the RIBA’s key proposals is that fire safety design should be signed off prior to the start of a construction project, while also advocating the use of independent inspection during a project’s construction by its principal designer, who assumes the role of “dutyholder” for fire safety.

The RIBA has also called for the greater involvement of users and residents in the briefing and concept stages of a new building, in order to create a better understanding and awareness of potential fire issues after moving in.

Speaking in October, the RIBA’s director of practice Lucy Carmichael said the measures – 22, in total – were comprehensive enough to avail designers and construction teams with vital clarity over what is now required of them across the lifespan of a project.

“We cannot wait for longer term regulatory change to come into force: the construction industry needs immediate guidance,” said Carmichael.

Positive response: Industry welcomes guidelines but still more clarity needed

In the interim, the RIBA has been canvassing its members, as well as other industry professionals, for feedback on the consultation document. According to Abigail Chiswell-White, a spokesperson for the body, the response to the document has been “generally positive – the industry has been very welcoming of the concept”.

That said, the RIBA will have its work cut out in bringing its proposals to life. One particular bugbear is the Building Regulations Approved Documents Part B, the existing piece of statutory guidance around fire safety in buildings in England, which the institute claims has become too overly complex to follow.

“It’s a big confused mess, frankly,” says Bussey, who helped develop RIBA’s proposals.

“There’s no logical structure to the document as it stands, meaning architects struggle to work their way through it. So, what we are saying to the government is that we need a clear straightforward plan of regulatory control that means when we hand over a project to somebody else, they are exactly on the same page when it comes to fire safety.”

The RIBA is therefore under no illusion that its plan of work will require some rejigging in order to achieve the level of clarity its members so clearly crave.

“We still have much to do to refine the document,” asserts Chiswell-White. “We need to define a standard fire safety strategy process that will help to maintain a golden thread of information throughout the life of a project. The current draft process map also highlights the involvement of statutory bodies across various stages, which are not typical of the current processes.”

Appetite for change: Providing architects with much-needed training

The RIBA is set to review the documents “in due course, following further Government announcements”. In the meantime, the onus is on the construction to continue to change its culture and stamp out existing complacencies around fire safety. Bussey is currently in the midst of a nationwide tour delivering seminars on this very subject, as part of the RIBA’s core continuing professional development (CPD) programme.

Attendances at these workshops have been consistently strong, says Bussey, suggesting a growing awareness within the industry that it needs to address its shortcomings.

“I’d say not even 5% of architects have had an adequate training on fire,” he says. “That’s because it’s just assumed you will learn about it when you get into a practice and encounter the regulations. The only trouble is that these regulations are totally incomprehensible. This is something we need to address.”

According to Manny Atkinson, a director at architecture and design firm BTP, the industry has undergone an attitudinal shift post-Grenfell.

“The industry is certainly designing buildings increasingly with fire safety in mind,” he says.

“The Grenfell disaster has had a direct impact on the materials we specify as designers, for example, cladding on tower blocks has to be non-combustible and tested.

“In addition, consultations with Building Control, approved inspectors, the fire brigade and fire consultants are being carried out a lot earlier on in complex projects and as an integral part of the design process. This is to ensure that the fire strategy has been resolved and agreed before construction commences rather than being a bolt-on to the design.”

While much more needs to be done, may such developments continue. A disaster such as the one that befell Grenfell Tower cannot be allowed to happen again.