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Call for earlier engagement on fire safety

Grenfell Tower fire

A senior member of the London Fire Brigade has pleaded with design professionals to consult the fire service earlier when designing tall buildings, to avoid conflict later in the process.

Deputy assistant commissioner for the London Fire Brigade Kevin Hughes asked delegates at Living in the Sky: Managing compliance in the world of tomorrow, a Capita health and safety lecture, to consult the fire service much earlier in the design process.

At the moment consultation often comes too late, and so if changes need to be made it can push up design costs significantly, said Hughes.

“What I’m trying to say is lots of people don’t seem to realise the difficulty you can get to down the line, and if you’ve got any influence in those processes, please ask the questions about: can we ask the fire service for their advice first before we go too far with the design process?” he said.

Hughes also called for a change in how tall buildings are defined in legislation. Currently a tall building is defined as being 18m or over, but Hughes said a redefinition of 11m would be a “much more sensible and practical height” for firefighting purposes.

This is because while older wooden ladders could reach heights of 18m, some modern ladders do not. Many tall buildings in London are now over 50 storeys; the tallest residential tower is 75 storeys high.

“As buildings go taller, and they will go taller, and as buildings become more multi-use and more complex, then quite simply firefighting and the challenges for the fire service in those buildings becomes ever more complex, and more challenging, and more difficult,” said Hughes.

He added that the fire service was trying to keep up with innovations from architects and engineers working on complex tall buildings.

Guidance on fire safety in tall buildings can be found in Approved Document B, which has received calls for change from some fire safety agencies such as the Fire Sector Federation (FSF).

In a letter to Dame Judith Hackitt, who is leading the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety set up in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, the FSF argued for a review of building resilience guidance. At the moment Approved Document B recommends that combustible materials must not be used on buildings over 18m tall.

“It has been over 10 years since AD B [Approved Document B] has been reviewed. AD B is somewhat dated, its application is not straightforward and there are major questions over its use and the enforcement of the recommendations that make up its prime guidance,” said the letter.

The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire began on 14 September, while the independent Building Regulations review is currently hearing evidence and will publish an interim report this autumn.

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Building Regulations fire safety guidance (Approved Document B) uses 18m as the threshold for requiring the components of external wall systems to be of limited combustibility. This threshold is based on the judgement of the height at which a fire on an external wall can be tackled from the ground using ladders. It was set following consultation.”

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