Why people must always be the priority

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is a call to action for the entire housebuilding industry.

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Nothing is more important than protecting the lives of people. As we work to deal with the housing shortage in the UK, and to find room to build or to upgrade our existing stock, this mantra must stay front of mind. Our homes should be places where we can be (and feel) sheltered, safe and secure.

One of the biggest concerns people have voiced following the Grenfell Tower tragedy is the issue of fire safety, particularly for high-rise buildings. Since the Building Regulations for Fire Safety are now under urgent review, it is crucial that we take this opportunity to get the system right. It is heartening, therefore, to see the constructive direction of travel that Dame Judith Hackitt is taking to achieve this, by not only examining how the regulatory system needs to be strengthened, but also how the construction industry operates at a fundamental level.

Fire is not a straightforward issue. How and to what extent a building fire develops depends on many different factors, including the overall design, the quality of the installation, and what passive or active fire protection measures are in place, as well as what the building is made of. In her interim report published last December, Dame Judith demonstrates a clear understanding of the complexities that are involved. Yet, sadly, a great deal of the debate since the publication of the report has been focussed purely on the classification of the materials that make up cladding systems, (the insulation and external cladding) and in particular, whether they should be combustible or non-combustible.

Making buildings safe requires a lot more thought and consideration than just restricting the kind of materials of which they can be made. It would be a huge mistake to assume that simply switching to a blanket requirement for non-combustible materials is a panacea.

Simply put, the use of non-combustible and limited combustibility materials is not a guarantee of fire safety in construction. For example, in the UK, materials are classified as “non-combustible”, “combustible” or of “limited combustibility” based solely on small-scale tests of individual products. These tests give no consideration to how materials will perform when combined in a system, as they would be on a real building. It ignores the way that different components within that system interact with each other, and what might happen if just one of those components fails in a fire.

Furthermore, there is currently no requirement for systems in which the insulation materials and the external cladding are classified as non-combustible or limited combustibility, to undergo any kind of system testing. It is simply assumed that the system would pass.

Another consideration is that, even in a cladding system where the insulation and external cladding are non-combustible, there can still be a surprising proportion of combustible material. Other essential components such as gaskets, thermal breaks, sealants, membranes, even the binders that hold many non-combustible insulation materials together can, and will, burn.

So, if you don’t know how a cladding system will perform (because it’s never been tested as a system), and if it’s not feasible to make it completely non-combustible, why would you choose to go down the route of making this the only way you can build over 18 metres? After decades of research into the fire performance of products, we strongly believe that the best way to ensure a cladding system’s safety is to test it as a complete system, regardless of whether it contains combustible, limited-combustibility or non-combustible products.

This approach creates a clear, universal standard for the industry to meet, without ruling out tried and tested systems that contain combustible materials, especially for buildings where the use of non-combustible or limited-combustibility materials would be too thick or too heavy to be practical.

Of course, looking at the requirements for cladding systems is just one small aspect of creating buildings that are safe. Any sensible assessment of what happened at Grenfell needs to consider a wide range of factors including building height, sprinkler installation, fire and smoke detection, means of escape, flammability of building contents, as well as the combination of materials used in exterior walls and internal finishes. Most critically of all it also needs to review and assess whether existing safeguards are being applied and overseen properly.

The interim report for the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety takes these complexities into account and has outlined a holistic approach to creating safer buildings, and an industry that is fully aligned to deliver them. It emphasises the need to raise levels of competence for all construction professionals engaged in the fire prevention aspects of a building, including design, construction, inspection and maintenance.

As well as simpler, less ambiguous regulations and guidance, it calls for greater oversight of the quality of installation, much stronger enforcement of the rules, and sanctions for those who do not follow them. Clear lines of responsibility, better communication and greater accountability are needed at every stage, not just of construction, but also during occupation of a building – a “golden thread” of information, recording every change that affects that building throughout its life.

In each of the six key areas identified for change in the report, the importance of the role that people play is reiterated. The point is that government can produce regulations and provide guidance, but ultimately it is the people on the ground who need to make sure that these are implemented properly. It is people who make decisions to market products responsibly. It is people who create the design, who procure the products, who deliver the buildings. It is the people who have to live in those buildings, who need to be listened to and kept safe.

We have an opportunity now to enact real change. To develop a system where the whole supply chain works together to create buildings that are safe, that perform better, and that remain true to the designer’s original intent throughout their life cycle. In doing this we will not only help to protect people from fire, we will also be giving them homes that deliver on all fronts, including greater energy efficiency, healthier environments, and higher levels of comfort.

Gene Murtagh is CEO of Kingspan Group.