Construction industry takes lead on fire safety while waiting for Government clarification, research reveals

The first research to investigate what has changed in construction practice since the Grenfell Tower fire reveals a wide range of improvements being implemented by the industry itself, but a growing frustration with the slow response from Government – despite a promise by the Housing Minister to ban combustible cladding in the future on high risk buildings.

Construction industry professionals report that since the fire in June 2016 they have most often seen changes in the products used for cladding, insulation and fire doors, as well as more demands for new fire testing of products.

They also report changes to the way procurement policies, tenders and contract terms deal with fire safety issues and responsibilities.

The research was conducted for UK Construction Week (UKCW) which opens today. UKCW received detailed responses from respondents across all parts of the industry.

While many of the respondents are monitoring Government advice and waiting for the outcome of a current review of Building Regulations, they are critical of the time being taken to clarify new requirements since the fire and the subsequent publication of the Hackitt Review in May 2018.

Comments from research respondents included:

“I just wish that action could happen more quickly”, and “Things are changing, but way too slowly.” One person said: “The Government will take a decade to produce yet another set of incomplete regulations together, and will probably produce another White Paper. They need to set a clock on this.”

In the meantime, the construction industry is getting on with things itself.

Among a wide range of changes, respondents to the research are most likely themselves to have implemented reviews of all their current project designs and specifications, to have commissioned additional fire risk assessments on projects, and to have increased training on fire safety.

Indeed, when asked about their top three preferred changes to transform fire safety across all buildings (not just high-rise blocks or other high-risk buildings), the industry is not simply counting on new regulations. That comes sixth on the list of their priorities.

The first choice is greater involvement of an architect, Clerk of Works, fire engineer, the fire and rescue service itself or other professional adviser who would do a full fire risk assessment and ensure better design and specification. Many called for the end of contractor-led ‘Design and Build’ type contracts.

A close second is a change in the choice and attention given to materials being specified and used on all buildings, including many supporting the ban on combustible materials in exposed areas of a building, in particular cladding or insulation.

Third choice is the installation and regular maintenance of sprinklers and other active fire detection and suppression equipment into all buildings.

The UKCW research shows that confidence among construction industry professionals that, post-Grenfell, the UK’s approach to fire safety in all buildings will now change for the better, currently stands at 6 out of 10.

Contractors, specialist sub-contractors and building products suppliers are marginally more confident than other groups (with an average confidence score of 7 out of 10).

Nathan Garnett, event director at UK Construction Week, says:

“Our research shows that the industry has taken to heart every opportunity to change its practice and is already well along a process that will change the way all buildings are procured, design, built and maintained.”

“This is an issue that will be discussed widely at next week’s event, and is likely to remain the highest agenda item for years to come. While confidence is quite good at this time, we must do all we can to maintain the positive attitude and momentum behind these changes.”

Geoff Wilkinson, managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants, a fire safety and building standards expert and one of the speakers at this year’s UKCW seminar on quality in construction post-Grenfell, says:

“It is very encouraging to see the industry getting on with it, despite the hiatus from Government. But what’s needed is an industry-wide coordinated response.”

“The ban on combustible materials is long overdue. We need to be told why it has taken over a year to get to this point when a very simple changing of regulatory guidance could have achieved the same thing in days.”

The UKCW seminar on this topic takes place on Wednesday 10 October.

Other speakers at this event include Jonathan O’Neill, managing director at the Fire Protection Association, Peter Capelhorn, deputy chief executive and policy director at the Construction Products Association and Claire Curtis-Thomas, chief executive of the BBA.

UK Construction Week is the largest trade event for the construction industry, taking place at the NEC from 9-11 October 2018.