By Alan Oliver, Director of Compliance Division at Yorkshire and Essex-based Checkmate Fire solutions
Under the Building Regulations in England and Wales, there is a requirement for main contractors to ensure that new or refurbished buildings are completed and handed over to the client in a fire-compliant state, in relation to means of escape and minimum life safety.
However, there is significant evidence showing that increasing numbers of buildings are being constructed with badly installed passive fire protection, or more worryingly, that it’s missing altogether.
There are numerous reasons why many buildings are re-furbished or constructed with badly installed or missing passive fire protection. Pricing can often be one of the main ones, with the competitive tender process regularly leading to a focus on who can offer the lowest price, as opposed to who demonstrates best practice. Then there’s the all too common issue of the fragmentation of the passive fire protection elements into various sub-contractor packages, often leading to a situation where very little knowledge of passive fire protection exists.
The overarching problem is that there’s a general lack of expertise as to the correct application and limitations of various passive fire protection products (expansion foam being a good example), combined with items and areas being missed due to the poor coordination of work and the decline in role of Clerk of Works; the person who was traditionally available to monitor such work.
Don’t assume fire compliance as standard
Many people believe that if a building has been signed off by Building Control, then it has achieved fire compliance; but this is often not the case. There’s no statutory duty for Building Control to inspect fire control measures, meaning that building owners and occupiers should not assume that the building is being handed over to them in a fire-compliant condition.
This results in clients needing to carry out a risk assessment and other inspections when they take control of a new building, and a possible lengthy legal claim against the main contractor if it’s found that the built-in fire protection is inadequate, or incorrectly installed. Also, inspections can prove difficult for those carrying them out on behalf of a client (such as fire risk assessment consultants), because of the ‘built-in’ nature of passive fire protection, installation defects upon handover are often very hard to detect without carrying out destructive tests.
For example, the simplest fire door design can rarely tolerate any installation error, and one hour of fire resistance can easily be reduced to less than ten minutes. The problem would only become evident in the event of an actual fire.
Take the lead on protection
Taking all of the above into account, it’s most definitely in the interest of the client to be actively involved in passive fire protection installations from project design to completion, ensuring all work is carried out to a satisfactory standard. There are a number of actions that clients should take to ensure that this is the case.
Most importantly of all – and from the outset of any project – the client should be very active as part of the selection process for their sub-contractor. This allows them to ensure that any sub-contractor commissioned offers the required passive fire protection competencies within accepted procurement guidelines, and not just the lowest price!
It’s also imperative that clients insist that all those carrying out passive fire protection work are third-party accredited as the result of a robust audit and inspection, and that documented proof of this is supplied if necessary.
When it comes to the passive fire protection products themselves, the client should ensure that an expert investigation is conducted into any products and systems to be installed, not least to check that they meet holistic specification and fire rating requirements. Regular monitoring and inspection of the building’s passive fire protection should also be insisted upon throughout the project, from design to completion.
Upon the project nearing completion, inspection should be scheduled immediately prior to the building handover. This inspection should include ensuring that fire compartmentation has not been breached by the late installation of technology cables and other wired services.
In practice, it’s unlikely that a client will have the required expertise ‘in-house’ to ensure they can take the lead on their project’s passive fire protection. It will often be necessary to engage the services of a company or individual to fulfil the role of fire protection ‘champion’, which will ultimately result in additional project costs.
However, in reality it’s a price worth paying to safeguard the life safety and best practice, ensuring that fire compliance is completed correctly from the word ‘go’. This will not only be the most cost-effective option in the long term, but the life-saving one, too.