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Grenfell | What's changed?

Grenfell Tower

Two months ago, Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report into building regulations and fire safety in the wake of last June’s Grenfell Tower fire was sobering reading for the construction industry.

The former chair of the Health and Safety Executive labelled the UK’s building regulations “not fit for purpose” and urged a sea change in the industry’s behaviour, putting the onus on firms to take more responsibility for fire safety in tall buildings.

She expected no delays.

“There is no reason why this culture change cannot begin voluntarily now ahead of the final recommendations and any legislative changes,” she wrote in December.

Hackitt’s final report will be published in the spring. Last month, the second phase of her review kicked off with an industry summit, where construction and fire safety experts started looking at how to redesign the industry, root and branch.

But, nine months on from Grenfell, has there been any real change so far?

Arcadis partner and Construction Leadership Council member Simon Rawlinson believes that the fire has already altered the industry, regardless of any recommendations from Hackitt.

“I think the events of Grenfell have made clients, contractors, designers, much more aware of the ambiguity that exists in the current system,” he tells New Civil Engineer. “I think people are being quite a lot more risk aware in terms of the decisions that they take in specifying and constructing buildings and evidencing that work has been done properly.

“But you would expect that of the industry: to respond in that way when the failings were brought to such clarity with the Grenfell tragedy.”

For public sector organisations in particular, Grenfell has created “significant confusion” when it comes to fire safety regulations and building approvals, claims Fathi Tarada, managing director at fire engineering specialist Mosen.

“We have noticed that clients, particularly public sector clients, are now very much more sensitive about fire safety issues,” he says. “In some respects the pendulum has swung the other way, and we are perhaps now being asked to look at things that we didn’t necessarily think were important,” he says, adding that he has seen some clients pressuring private firms to conduct overly cautious fire risk investigations in buildings. 

Tarada also relates how some clients are not insisting on a particular qualification level for their fire engineers, meaning some could be underqualified. In the wake of the fire, New Civil Engineer called for a government-backed national fire risk assessor register to be set up, which would restrict tall building owners to only using approved fire risk assessors.

Cladding firm Vivalda Group’s managing director Ben Jayes agrees there is uncertainty in the industry about what safety measures companies should take.

“Some of this is a knee-jerk reaction,” he tells New Civil Engineer. “Some businesses have gone belt and braces; some businesses haven’t. And the fact that there’s no consistency across the spectrum is creating a lot of confusion,” says Jayes.

Tarada believes there needs to be more clarity around who is obliged to undertake fire risk assessments, and how often buildings need to be assessed.

“I think it’s very important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and insist that every single commercial building or house of multiple occupation is reviewed every year or something like that,” he says.

“I wouldn’t be in favour of that, I think it’s got to be a lot cleverer than that as to what needs to be reviewed by whom and when, but clearly the current regime doesn’t work so things must be changed for the better.”

Rawlinson insists that, while there are immediate steps which the industry can take, such as ensuring the correct product testing has been carried out, major changes should wait until the final Hackitt review recommendations have been published.

“In terms of the recommendations of the Hackitt review and particularly the changes that might be introduced to regulation, I think it’s quite important that the industry allows those to be completed and published and carefully considered because they clearly (bring) potentially quite significant changes, not only to how buildings are specified, but then how the regulations themselves are to be applied and enforced.”

Public inquiry

While Dame Judith Hackitt is preparing her final report, the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is scrutinising 267,000 documents as it investigated the cause of the blaze. Before the next hearings begin in May, five experts will submit reports on various aspects of the fire:

  • Arup fire safety engineer leader Barbara Lane will report on the active and passive fire protection measures in the building, with preliminary conclusions on why they failed on 14 June last year.
  • University of Edinburgh school of engineering fire and structures professor Luke Bisby is researching the ignition of the façade materials, including cladding and insulation, and the fire’s spread over the external façade of the building.
  • CS Todd & Associates fire safety consultant Colin Todd is writing about the different statutory and regulatory requirements in force over the tower’s lifetime.
  • University of Maryland centre for disaster resilience director José Torero will present a report on how the fire spread.
  • University of Dundee school of science and engineering director Niamh Nic Daeid is researching the cause and spread of the fire in the flat where it started, and how the fire spread within the apartment and outside.

A second procedural hearing will take place across two days, on 21 and 22 March.

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