The government advice, issued in June 2019, will have widespread implications for the assessment and management of balcony fire risk. Will Forbes, Technical Project Lead at balcony specialist Neaco, explains their likely impact.
The Grenfell disaster gave rise to new Building (Amendment) Regulations in December 2018, requiring stricter fire safety compliance for new, refurbished and converted residential buildings with a floor above 18 metres from the ground. Architects, developers and contractors have been adjusting to those changes, but the recent Barking balcony fires have prompted a new government publication, Advice Note on Balconies in Residential Buildings, which will have a wider impact. It applies to all existing residential buildings with multiple dwellings, irrespective of their height.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) issued the document on 24 June, recommending fire risk assessments on existing buildings which have potentially serious implications for building owners in particular. In many cases they could result in retrospective measures such as the replacement of balcony flooring materials.
The Advice Note sets out clear responsibilities for building owners, stating that they “should be aware of the materials used in the construction of their external wall, including the construction of balconies and the potential for any horizontal and vertical fire spread due to their arrangement on the external wall. These should be considered as part of any fire risk assessment.”
The December 2018 amendment to the Building Regulations only expressly prohibits the use of combustible materials in buildings with a floor above 18 metres in height. However, the Advice Note states that building owners should “ensure that they understand the materials used in the construction of existing balconies, irrespective of the building height. Building owners should assess the associated risk of external fire spread and take appropriate action to manage this risk and to ensure compliance with the principle set out in Requirement B4 of the Building Regulations.” B4 refers to external fire spread and the Advice Note also cites paragraph 12.5 of Approved Document B which sets out that “the external envelope of a building should not provide a medium for fire spread if it is likely to be a risk to health or safety.”
The Advice Notes states that “the removal and replacement of any combustible material used in balcony construction is the clearest way to prevent external fire spread from balconies and therefore to meet the intention of building regulation requirements and this should occur as soon as practical.”
The final part of that statement suggests a need for urgency. The new document identifies the new Building (Amendment) Regulations as key reference point for assessing the fire risk of balconies on existing buildings. These regulations require the use of use materials that are A2-s1, d0 rated or Class A1 under the European classification system (Euroclass) set out in the standard BS EN 13501-1 subject to exemptions.
These standards have a significant impact on the compliance of existing decking and flooring materials. Various materials with elements of wood, including composite decking products, were previously compliant but are no longer permissible under the new Building (Amendment) Regulations as they are not A2-s1, d0 rated or class A1 under Euroclass. In meeting the requirements outlined in the Advice Note, building owners need to be mindful of these standards when assessing the fire risk of their existing balcony decking.
Aluminium has become an exceptionally popular choice of decking as it provides unequivocal compliance as an A1 Euroclass-rated material. It is lightweight yet strong, providing exceptional spanning capabilities which reduce the need for structural supports. This is an especially useful attribute in buildings where timber joists need to be removed from balconies in order to meet compliance. As a corrosive-free metal with a design life of at least 60-100 years, aluminium also represents a long-term, maintenance-free solution for building owners.
Whilst the Building (Amendment) Regulations addressed a general need to improve fire safety on external wall systems and balconies, a response to the dangers starkly illustrated by Grenfell, the latest government advice focuses on the specific risks involved in balconies which were brought to widespread attention by the Barking fires. It’s certainly a belated measure: the problem was highlighted over three years ago when BRE Global published ‘Fire safety issues with balconies’ (a report which is acknowledged in the government’s Advice Note). Nevertheless, it’s a welcome step in the right direction and will lead to improvements in safety for building occupants.
It is not yet clear what regulatory authority will be responsible for overseeing the requirements expressed in the Advice Note. The document also omits any clarification regarding how compliance will be enforced. However, one point is clear: there is growing and irreversible momentum for change in the way we assess and address fire safety in our buildings. Considering their health and safety duties to residents and the view of the MHCLG, it would be prudent for building owners to follow the guidance set out in the document.
Seeking expert advice
Navigating government guidelines and building regulations can be a daunting prospect, but expert advice can make the route to compliance relatively easy and stress-free. The Advice Note recommends that building owners seek professional advice from an appropriately qualified and competent professional such as a fire engineer or construction professional with significant knowledge and experience of fire safety.
Specialist manufacturers can play a valuable advisory role in helping building owners to assess the combustibility of the materials used in balconies. With protection against external fires becoming an increasingly prominent issue, they can impart their experience to help architects, contractors, facilities managers and building owners who are seeking to minimise fire risk on their properties.