Desktop studies - a chance for real change

The government is consulting on the future of “desktop studies.” Banning them is the first step we need to take on fire safety.

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The UK government has been widely criticised for its inaction in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.  We are 10 months on from the tragedy, and yet the same building regulations and guidance that allowed a combination of combustible cladding and insulation materials to be retrofitted onto the tower are still in place. 

The first opening

On 11 April, however, there was a sign of genuine progress when the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced a consultation into the use of so-called desktop studies – unregulated opinions extrapolated from large-scale fire tests to assess a building’s supposed fire safety. In a press statement, MHCLG asked for industry and expert input to discuss the controversial assessments, and said that it was considering “restricting or banning the use of ‘desktop studies’ as a way of assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems”.

Sajid Javid promised that the consultation “could mean that the use of ‘desktop studies’ are either significantly restricted or banned altogether. This demonstrates the tough measures we are prepared to take to make sure that cladding tests are as robust as possible and people are safe in their homes”.

This is the first time that the government has publicly considered scrapping desktop studies, and the first real opening they have created to push through meaningful change to fire safety in the UK. This is an opportunity we must seize. 

In the wake of one of the worst fire disasters in UK history, we need firm and decisive reform of this kind to put public safety first.  And we need to hold the government to its promise to conduct a serious consultation. Desktop studies are one of the least defensible elements of England’s failed system of building regulations and guidance and they should simply be banned.

Flawed foundations

In theory, a desktop study should be based on a BS 8414 large scale façade fire test.  Materials manufacturers use that test when they want to install combustible cladding or insulation on a high-rise building. The first problem, however, is that the test itself is fundamentally flawed.

It’s a laboratory test that doesn’t include simple design features such as windows or ventilation openings you find on a real building.  The manufacturer paying for the test can also decide key details that can have a direct bearing on the result.  As seen in the post-Grenfell DCLG tests for instance, one can install substantially more fire barriers than one would likely see on a real building. The tests simply don’t reflect real life and should not themselves be used as a standard for public safety.

Shabby science

Desktop studies compound these obvious deficiencies. If a manufacturer wants to use combustible cladding or insulation and does not want to pay for a BS 8414 fire test, it can pay a consultant to proffer an opinion as to whether their system would have passed the BS 8414 test. They take a test that doesn’t reflect real-life in the first place, and speculate from there. These “studies” are theoretical, but far from scientific. Adding insult to injury, there’s no obligation to publish the reports, so the public doesn’t even know what’s been tested or modelled. 

There are no official qualifications required to carry out a desktop study. There is no standard for the evidence that can be used. The consultant does not even have to consider the specific building that is being proposed when forming an opinion. And again, the manufacturers pay for the report, and are not required to publish it. Landlords, councils, building owners, developers and the public have no claim to see these reports, so they might never get the opportunity to check and challenge the assumptions made.

We know of no other country that allows speculation to replace science in fire safety.

Restriction is not enough

In her interim report, Dame Judith Hackitt recommends “significantly restricting” desktop studies, but that would still permit speculation to play a role in the fire safety of our buildings. In her forthcoming final report, Dame Judith can recommend an obvious solution – that the government requires that all high-rise and high-risk buildings like schools and hospitals have non-combustible cladding and insulation only. That solution is already in place across much of Europe, including France and Germany, and it works. It is simple and straightforward, and eliminates the cracks and shadows that have bedevilled fire safety in the UK.

And while the MHCLG’s public consultation on desktop studies is a welcome opening, the truth is we do not need a consultation to tell us that they have no place in a rigorous regulatory system. Now is the time for genuine leadership in the name of public safety.  Banning desktop studies and requiring non-combustible cladding and insulation on high-rise and high-risk buildings would be obvious and long overdue first steps.

Darryl Matthews is managing director of ROCKWOOL UK.