Tower blocks can bring a host of challenges for landlords when it comes to the issue of fire safety so how can you make sure that high rise isn’t high risk? By Michelle Gordon
IN 2009 six people were killed when a blaze swept through Lakanal House, a 15-storey tower block in Camberwell, London, which was built in 1959. An inquest into the deaths revealed that appropriate fire inspections hadn’t been carried out and fire-stopping material had been removed during renovation work affecting the compartmentation of the flats (that’s the sub-division of a building using fire-resisting walls/floors to stop the spread of fire).
The tragedy shone a spotlight on the issue of fire safety in tower blocks, highlighting the importance of measures to prevent fire from spreading and the impact that refurbishment work can have on the integrity of a building. If the appropriate fire protection measures are in place a flat should be no more hazardous than any other dwelling. In fact while flats appear to have more fires than houses, they account for less injuries and deaths, said Nick Coombe, enforcement lead for fire safety for the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA).
Landlords have a legal obligation under the Housing Act 2004 and Regulatory Fire Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO), to take measures to reduce the risk of fire and spread of fire; provide adequate means of escape and the measures necessary to assist people in the use of the escape routes; where necessary to install fire extinguishing appliances and to ensure information on what to do in the event of a fire is shared with residents. Smoke alarms should be fitted in every dwelling and landlords should also have responsibility for maintaining any fire protection/fire fighting facilities that are in place.
The FSO requires a responsible person to be appointed to “have control over” each building with responsibility for ensuring that regular risk assessments are carried out and documented. Typically the responsible person is the freeholder or landlord but it may be a residential management company.
A “competent person” should also be appointed with the appropriate training and experience to provide guidance on what fire safety measures are required and what should be implemented.
Landlords have an obligation to make sure that all tenants are aware of the fire safety policy and what they should do in the event of a fire. There should be something in the tenancy agreement about fire safety, said Coombe, which is highlighted with every change of tenancy and tenants should be reminded on a regular basis through leaflets/newsletters.
There is a range of fire safety and fire protection measures on the market from smoke alarms to sprinkler systems, as well as passive fire protection measures to stop the spread of a blaze and the exact nature of what is required will vary from building to building. The appropriate measures must be determined by a fire risk assessment which needs to reviewed on a regular basis and must be updated if any works have been carried out, if there has been a fire, or if a notice has been served by the Fire and Rescue Service.
Fire extinguishers only need to be installed when a residential block is also a place of work, to a concierge, for example, and sprinklers are only required in a building over a certain height. Smoke alarms should be fitted in every individual flat but Coombe said their use in communal areas is not always necessary.
“You don’t want someone on the 20th floor having to come out of their flat because someone has burnt their toast on the second floor.” However, he concedes that common systems have their place when the compartmentation in a building is “so bad” that everyone would have to evacuate in the case of a fire.
Fire safety in new buildings is covered under Building Regulations which require all new-build tower blocks to have some sort of fire strategy drawn into the plans, but with older buildings it is impossible to know what measures are in place without a fire risk assessment.
“The Building Regulations change every so often and the problem is you can’t apply new standards to old buildings. If you have got a 1960s tower block, that wouldn’t be built now, we wouldn’t allow it, but it was safe then,” explained Coombe. “This is where the fire risk assessment comes in because that will decide what is safe, what is necessary and what is reasonable, and fire safety should be reasonable because you can spend a lot of money putting everything into a building when it isn’t necessary.”
Modern blocks are designed to stop the spread of fire in the first place and each flat is designed to be a fire resistant box, with fire-resisting walls, ceiling and floors. Many modern blocks operate a stay put policy when fire breaks out, where other residents (apart from the flat where the fire started) remain in their homes throughout, but such policies are dependent on proper compartmentation and the use of appropriate materials to contain a blaze.
Compartmentation is not unique to newer properties and measures can be put in place to improve the fire resistance of existing buildings but such works should always be carried out by a third party accredited installer and all materials used should also be third party accredited.
Gunfire Limited, part of the Gunite Group, is a passive fire protection contractor which specialises in supplying and installing passive fire protection systems to new and existing buildings. The company uses ablative blatt and intumescent mastic (resin) which swells when exposed to heat to fill voids in buildings and stop flames from spreading.
“It is basically like the lagging or the insulation that goes in your loft but it comes 50 or 60 mil thick and has got a mastic coat to it which keeps it quite rigid but it is just mineral wool inside effectively,” explained James Reid, passive fire safety expert at Gunfire Limited. “All of the edges are butted with an intumescent mastic and in the event of a fire the mastic on the front of it rather than transferring the heat reacts with the heat and gives off a steam, and it stops the transfer and passage of heat through it, whereas on the edges where we have put it into the voids or the aperture and put the mastic in because it is an intumescent mastic it chars and expands so it fills the gap and stops the passage of flames, smoke or any toxic gases.”
Anything penetrating the compartmentation such as pipes for heating will also have to be made fire resistant, especially plastic pipes which will melt in the event of a fire. All too often, compartmentation is breached due to refurbishment works or even something as seemingly innocuous as having satellite TV installed, and if the breach isn’t spotted the consequences can be devastating.
“In some cases where work has been done putting in new central heating systems, satellite TV etc holes have been drilled in the building and not filled in correctly and that can make compartmentation defunct, so fire will spread,” said Coombe.
A fire risk assessment should be carried out after any works are completed on a tower block and fire protection contractors should also be called back in to seal around cables etc. Every time Gunfire puts a fire seal in place it puts a sticker on it with the date it was put in and company contact details, as well as a seal ID which will correspond to the hand over sheets for the works.
“If you have got an electrician in and they do have to put a hole through one of our blatts and seals our phone number is on there, and it does say on the sticker if you are tampering with it to give us a call and we will come out and are happy to reseal it, as long as there isn’t too much damage,” said Reid.
“If they have battered it to pieces then obviously we can’t do anything, but if they have just drilled a hole in it to put a wire through it we can happily put a bead of mastic around it and certificate that again.”
He urged landlords to make sure that they use third party accredited specialist contractors and to separate out their fire protection packages from other works, rather than combining it with their M&E package, for example.
“You wouldn’t get a plumber to fix your car but anyone seems to think they can do fire stopping,” he said.
There has been much progress made on the issue of fire safety in recent years and Reid said that it does appear to be being taken more seriously, but there is still much to be done.
“We are on the right path and it is definitely being treated more seriously, but there is a lot more work to be done, especially in using third party accredited installers and getting the right people to do the right jobs,” he said.
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Case study: Leeds City Council and Gunfire
Leeds City Council recently appointed Gunfire Ltd to install fire stopping solutions to 1960s high-rise buildings, following a fire safety audit.
One of the UK’s largest retrospective residential fire safety projects it will bring benefits to 100,000 residents and includes the installation of measures to prevent the spread of fire.
“The majority of the technologies we have installed across the Leeds City Council tower blocks have become commonplace in new-build developments, but were sadly lacking in the 1960s, when many of these developments were first constructed,” said James Reid.
“Ablative blatt and mastic insulation are two technologies, which have been used extensively to fill voids that could aid the spread of fire between rooms and floors. In effect, the active intumescent ingredient chars and expands to block any fire passages.
“Likewise with fire hazards such as hollow or gas piping, which could offer fire a further route, we have installed high pressure exerting mastic and intumescent fire collars, which rapidly compress pipes in the event of fire, further preventing spread.”
Gunfire and the council have engaged with residents throughout the works, issuing over 20,000 leaflets and setting up a satellite office manned by a full-time project manager and a resident liaison officer.
“Once completed it’s hoped that the Leeds City Council high rise towers can act as a beacon for other councils and local authorities. By tracking fire incidents and fatalities it is hoped that empirical data can be collected, to better inform those responsible for the public in ageing buildings to take a more proactive approach to passive fire safety,” said Reid.
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Balconies are a growing feature of urban development but careful consideration must be given to the materials and structural design to mitigate the risk of balcony fires spreading to other parts of the building, says a new BRE Global report.
‘Fire safety issues with balconies’ was produced for the Department for Communities and Local Government under the ‘Investigation of Real Fires’ contract.
It cautions that design choices to prevent thermal bridging or improve insulation in balcony structures to meet Part L of the Building Regulations may be compromising fire safety under Part B. At the same time, Part B provides no specific fire design guidance for balconies, except when they act as a means of escape.
Citing several case studies, the report reveals that fires that start on a balcony can be quite severe and may spread to the balcony above, or to the flat above via windows. The presence of inappropriate cladding material can also promote fire spread up the entire façade of the building.
One case involved a fire on a concrete balcony installed with timber decking and timber battens, underlain by polyethylene spacer rings and foam insulation covered by a woven plastic sheet. The fire spread to involve insulation behind cladding systems on external walls, and to the balcony ceiling which had expanded polystyrene insulation behind a render. It also spread under the decking to the balcony of the neighbouring flat on the same level.
“The potential remains for a fire on a balcony construction which does not adequately consider all parts of the Building Regulations to pose a significant life safety issue,” said the report which can be downloaded from the BRE website.
This article first appeared in the October/November print edition of Housing magazine