Will banning desktop studies lead to improved fire safety?
The Government recently announced it will consider banning or restricting the use of desktop studies, but what impact could this have on fire safety, particularly in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy?
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently holding a consultation on the plans, which would either restrict or ban completely the use of desktop studies as a way of assessing the performance of external cladding systems.
The proposals come directly as a result of the recommendations made by Dame Judith Hackitt in her interim report last year, which recommended the use of desktop studies be restricted.
Dame Judith’s report also raised concerns about the competence of some of the assessment authors. A desktop study is a means of assessing whether an item is safe in lieu of a fire test.
The new consultation will consider whether desktop studies are appropriate for all construction products, wall systems or for any other purpose. And if they are deemed appropriate in some cases, the proposed changes include improving the transparency of assessments, proper scrutiny of results and ensuring that such studies can only be carried out by properly-accredited bodies that have the relevant expertise.
Why banning desktop studies is an “overdue first step”
Speaking to SHP Online, the managing director of Rockwool UK, which manufactures stone wool insulation materials, Darryl Matthews, says that banning desktop studies outright would be an “obvious and long overdue first step” to improving fire safety in the UK.
“A desktop study is based on the deeply flawed BS 8414 test, which doesn’t reflect real life conditions in the first place, and speculates from there,” adds Mr Matthews.
“There are no official qualifications required to carry out a desktop study, and no standard for the evidence that can be used. Adding insult to injury, there’s no obligation to publish the reports, so landlords, councils, building owners, developers and the public would likely never know what’s been tested or modelled.
“To protect public safety, the government should ban desktop studies and require non-combustible cladding and insulation on high-rise and high-risk buildings like schools and hospitals,” adds the Rockwool UK chief executive.
ABI calls for end of all but non-combustible materials in construction
Laura Hughes, a senior policy adviser for General Insurance at the Association of British Insurers (ABI), comments: “In our submission to Dame Judith Hackitt’s review we call for an end to the use of all but non-combustible materials in construction, and a reformed testing regime that replicates real world conditions to provide genuine evidence of how materials perform in a fire.
“A reformed system must also be able to keep pace with building innovation and modern design.”
The ABI’s submission to the Hackitt review calls for a duty on building regulations and associated guidance to not support construction and material combinations that are so susceptible to minor deviation that they can only really be demonstrated to be safe and compliant ‘on-plan’.
“A reformed testing regime would eliminate the use of such construction and materials, which only serve to create uncertainty about the fire performance of a building,” the submission states.
“ACM panels are a type of flat panel that consists of two thin aluminium sheets held together with a core (often combustible) filler. The aluminium sheets should, when perfectly installed, protect the combustible interior from a fire. Insurers are doubtful the current testing regime accurately reflects how ACM panels are installed on the external envelope of a building in reality.
“The tests replicate a ‘perfect build’ scenario that do not consider any breach of the aluminium barrier due to vents, ducts, wear and tear or poor installation,” the submission adds.
Residents’ point of view
And the chief executive of the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH), John Bibby, says it is important to look at the question of whether desktop studies are safe from the point of view of residents, who following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, will “rightly expect absolute assurances that their building is safe”.
“Residents find it incredible that the systems of construction and building regulation in this country have failed them to the extent that hundreds of high rise buildings across the country, in different ownership and of different tenures, have been allowed to be fitted with cladding systems that have since been proven to have failed the large scale fire safety tests carried out following the Grenfell fire and ask the question: why weren’t such tests carried out before the cladding systems were installed?,” says Mr Bibby.
“Residents of older high-rise blocks see the benefit of safe systems of cladding which improve the thermal value of high rise buildings and reduce often unaffordable heating bills. However residents also have a reasonable expectation that in future no cladding systems (of any type) should be installed on high rise buildings until and unless the particular cladding system proposed has been subject to the same large scale fire safety tests and is proven to be safe.
“Following Grenfell I am doubtful that residents of older high rise buildings would be prepared to agree to proposals to install cladding systems on their blocks unless the type of cladding and the cladding system proposed has been subject to a large scale fire safety test and a full copy of the fire safety test has been made available for public inspection,” adds Mr Bibby.
“Equally I can’t see many buyers in the private housing market being prepared to buy an apartment in a high rise block unless they receive similar assurances that the cladding on their home (and their investment) is safe – I certainly wouldn’t.”
Government is urged to hold firm against industry pressure
And the chairman of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter says it explained to the Government several months ago that Approved Document B needed revising in order to provide clarity for building owners seeking to replace flammable cladding.
“Currently, if no fire test data exists for a particular cladding system, a desktop study can be submitted,’ says Lord Porter.
“We have consistently said that desktop studies cannot substitute for real-world tests of cladding systems – including in our evidence to the Hackitt Review. We urge the Government to hold firm against industry pressure that seeks to allow their continued use.”
The government consultation on desktop studies closes on 25 May. For more information, see here.
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