Improving Sustainability Alongside Fire Safety – Can We Deliver?

Both at the same time – why not?

Remediation of the external skin of residential buildings to make the external cladding safe – we’ve heard the news, we’ve seen the evidence, and we have probably all walked past a building with the external wall stripped out in one fashion or another.

Making an existing building safe is sadly one of the most common tasks that we as Fire and Façade consultants get involved in now, but in terms of life safety it is one of the most important.

But what if our responsibility is bigger than the immediate impact?

We have also all seen the news regarding our now urgent requirements to respond to the climate crisis. Whilst it may not appear as an immediate risk, the need to act now to try and stem the tide of climate change has never been more pressing (Note: I would absolutely advise people to give the IPCC AR6 Summary Report a look, it’s and extremely sobering read…)

It is now we should respond and as Fire and Façade consultants we in particular have a part to play in our responsibility to this crisis.

Now I’m definitely not the first to say “well we are already opening up a building for life safety, why not upgrade what’s there!?”.

 

No alt text provided for this imageRemediating the envelope for life safety could provide an opportunity to upgrade and meet sustainability goals

 

And I know I’m not the first as the government in England have made amendments to the Building Regulations for exactly this purpose. Approved Document L1 2021, which came into force fully in June 2022, now requires any insulation replaced to now also upgrade the thermal performance of the wall to a minimum of 0.18W/m²K; this is a significant jump from the previous iteration of 0.28W/m²K.

It’s worth noting that there’s no “if reasonably practicable” wording in here for England (which is different from the Devolved Nations) – you need to do this to meet regulations.

The move drives consequential improvement into the heart of the recladding works, driving a sustainability agenda which is only a good thing. We’ve opened up the wall, we’re putting new stuff in, why would you not change the products whilst you are there to improve the operational performance of the building and reduce heat losses and air tightness?

 

The Problem

There is unfortunately never an easy answer in these situations, or let’s face it this would have been done years ago.

The challenge comes in with where replacement insulation, or at least the materials that are “reasonably” affordable in the current market, are inherently worse performing from a thermal perspective than the more combustible insulation that was there originally. This means you need more of it to achieve the same thermal performance (or U-Value), let alone then trying to beat it and improve the wall’s performance.

Unfortunately moving the external wall line out doesn’t solve our problem, or at least not quickly. Assuming that this would be possible the biggest challenge is getting this through planning; sadly recent experiences from clients is that this process could take as long as a year to resolve, which is not acceptable when we consider the fact that we are originally undertaking this work for a life safety reason.

Even considering changing things the other way by insulating internally isn’t ideal and could even be seen as counter intuitive (if you have the outside open why would you then carry on to the inside of people’s homes?). Internal insulation carries its own risks as well, as this will reduce floor areas in occupied buildings and increases risks of condensation internally and in particular at window reveals.

Sticking with the outside then and saying we got the go ahead from Planning or ended up selecting an expensive external insulation product that would meet the target, the next issue comes up – who pays for this?

Ultimately for those developers who have signed up to the Pledge, it’s their obligation and its off the bottom line. This puts increasing pressure on the industry to pay for consequential improvements whilst also swallowing up the effects of rampant inflation and the implications of ever more scrutiny under the Building Safety Act (again an extremely positive step and one I personally champion).

Alternatively, if you are a tenant and you did manage to get an application in before the deadline for funding via the BSF (and the developer hasn’t taken this back over) then this still doesn’t solve your problem either. Past experience over the last few years has taught me that any opportunity for ineligible works to be struck off the bill will be taken, and I can certainly see these improvements falling out and not being funded.

This shortfall – in addition to the likely shortfall from the government’s underestimation of the cost of the works in practice as experienced by PMs such as Fox Cooper – provides ever more of a cost burden that invariably goes back to the tenants who can’t afford it and shouldn’t have to.

So, what can we do?

The whole experience above when you delve into it sounds and feels very negative, and it’s never the way I want to be – after all I’m an engineer and our mantra is always to find the solution to the problem.

The solutions as I see it are twofold:

  1. We need to improve the funding situation rather than lumping it onto companies or tenants; this is an investment in our future and will benefit us all in the long term.
  2. Where possible there should be some means of reviewing and fast-tracking the planning process to increase external wall depths by some 200mm.

Sustainability is at the heart of this and rightly so – we need to decarbonise, and this is certainly an effective vehicle to achieve this operationally. However, I think there needs to be a recognition from Government that more help is needed if we really want to pull this off…

Fire Strategies – Design brief to final design and beyond….

There is not enough clarity around how a fire strategy evolves throughout the building lifecycle or consistency in what it is called at each stage. Traceability of decision making, products and materials is a laudable ambition but there is no guidance on how this will be realised in practice.

As a fire strategy evolves from design, through construction, on to occupation and completion there are multiple stakeholders, each with differing interests and desired outcomes. There are multiple inputs from various fire professionals, each with differing competencies. A fire strategy has many stakeholders from other professions who’s interests vary at different stages of the building lifecycle. An Architect and the design team do not have the same level of focus or interest in how the building will be managed, when compared to the facilities manager or fire safety manager who is going to be solely focused on management. Those that are constructing the building will be less concerned with performance criteria and more concerned with how is all fits together. It is clear that through design, into assurance and as we proceed towards handover there is a huge opportunity to overlay management information which is relevant to each stakeholder. The lack of guidance in this area has lead to a significant lack of consistency in what is included and to what level of detail in each fire strategy report at each stage of the lifecycle. We are inconsistent across the sector on terms and definitions.

Consistency of terms and definitions

If the fire safety profession cannot agree what it calls a fire strategy at each stage, then how is the intended audience supposed to know what they must ask for, and the level of detail to expect? For example:

  • Concept Fire Strategy or Outline Fire Strategy?
  • Technical Design Fire Strategy or Detailed Design Fire Strategy?
  • Fire assurance or fire surveying?
  • As-built fire strategy or final design fire strategy?
  • Fire risk management strategy or fire safety manual, fire management plan?
  • As-built, Final Design, Retrospective, or Forensic Fire Engineering.

Many of these terms are at best applied inconsistently or worse misunderstood and confused. This isn’t helpful.

Design brief, concept, detail and technical design.

The formulation of a Fire strategy is an iterative process. After the first draft, you can make it better as many times as you need and as a living document dedicated to life safety, property protection and mission continuity it should be kept up-to date as the building changes and undergoes any alterations. It is part of a broader fire risk management system, essential for forming the safety case.

The evolution of a fire strategy starts with a design brief then evolves into a concept, detailed fire strategy report then technical design, final fire design and ultimately should result in a fire risk management strategy. When a Fire Engineer is developing a fire strategy it is a collaborative process with the wider design team, and other fire specialists. Together they test it, tweak it, and repeat the cycle with the goal of getting closer to the final solution.

Fire Engineering in the UK has evolved and it has become more complex requiring a range of new competencies. There are clearly three different skill sets and three different areas these fire professionals will have input, which address three different audiences. Strategy formulation and involvement of a team of fire professionals should reduce risk throughout the design and construction process so that a building is fit for purpose at handover, and safe to occupy and use.

Fire safety assurance and pre-occupation safety assessment

There needs to be a clear understanding and agreement of what level of assurance is expected, needed and delivered.  An updated fire strategy at RIBA 5 will take into account things like changing positions of fire-resisting walls to suit final build. It would have performance specification for that fire-resisting wall, but would not state that this wall has been inspected and in actual fact achieves this on site. However fire assurance statements go a step further towards improved control and traceability and confirm that this updated design fire strategy has been implemented correctly in the detailed design and construction. Many developers now want some level of assurance as their responsibility for ensuring correct implementation of fire strategy becomes clear, and the criminal, contractual and tort liabilities in law become more pronounced. The role of the Fire Engineer or Fire Surveyor at late RIBA 4 and throughout RIBA 5/6 is far more significant than a decade ago.

Fire risk management, policy, strategy and procedure.

The management strategy can be developed at any stage, and once again it will be an iterative process, but it would be better updated to suit actual management arrangements once occupied and once the responsible person and all other duty holders are identified.

Fire Strategies can sometimes fail to afford the attention to management that management deserves. That was the title of an article I wrote in 2017. Many end-users still complain that fire strategies developed during design and construction fail to recognise the information needs of the end-user. As can be seen in the diagram above cumulative management input should increase throughout the strategy formulation process until the final design fire strategy work is closed out and suitable and sufficient detail on how the building will be physically and practically managed enables the responsible person or nominated duty holder to formulate a fire risk management strategy.

A need for national guidance?

This is not a call to make the process of fire strategy development prescriptive. Guidance must not stifle innovation. It needs to balance the flexibility to adapt fire strategies to be specific and bespoke to different buildings and modern construction methods. This is a call to improve the consistency of high level terms, definitions and structure. It’s a call to consider the level of detail at each stage. I acknowledge PAS 911:2007 Fire strategies – guidance and framework for their formulation – (Withdrawn Standard). A question arises given the changes that have occurred in fire safety over the last decade, whether we need a new standard to address where we are now.

Is it time we had some new and improved guidance on the formulation of a fire strategy and how fire safety information is gathered throughout the building lifecycle?

We would welcome comments on the diagram above. It’s not perfect and could be improved. We have developed a slightly more complex circular diagram which covers gateway stages, RIBA stages and overlay’s management. This one works better to convey the idea in a post. Does it make sense to you? does it accord roughly with your terms and definitions for the various levels of fire safety information? Would further guidance in a full British Standard be useful?

 

The Professional Advisory Board

The Professional Advisory Board

A national tragedy has amplified the amount of fire safety information in the public domain, There is an abundance of misinformation and it is clear that information is not knowledge. In many ways, we are drowning in information but starved of knowledge. Knowledge is like money: to be of value it must circulate, and in circulating it can increase in quantity and, hopefully, in value. The pragmatic principles of knowledge sharing from our perspective are quite simple;

  • Knowledge must be shared in the moment to be relevant
  • Knowledge sharing is a competitive advantage
  • Knowledge sharing happens when information flows throughout the organisation, cross-functionally and across locations
  • Knowledge sharing creates a culture of learning
  • Knowledge shared is Knowledge squared.

Our core idea at BB7 is “To become the ‘wisest’ player in those markets within which we choose to operate. Wise enough to be able to consider the bigger picture allowing us to improve and learn. Wise enough to challenge the way things are done”.

Therefore knowledge sharing is not a new concept. In fact with over 100+ technical experts within BB7 Group, our technical teams chat group is indeed a lively forum. Our mission is simple: “To create value for clients and our employees by being wise, and in doing so, become the leading independent specialty consulting firm in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland”.

To achieve this, we must remain a practice-based business, as opposed to a business based practice. We must also ensure we capitalise on our intellectual and knowledge-based assets. There is much more to this than simply having a lively TEAMS chat. It’s a systematic approach too:

People – Our program increases the ability of individual professionals within the organisation to influence others with their knowledge.

Processes – We have established best practices and governance for the efficient and accurate identification, management and dissemination of knowledge.

Technology – The technology we are adopting will enhance our service. We are configuring tools and automation to enable knowledge management.

Structure – Our organisational structures facilitate and encourage cross-discipline awareness and expertise which crosses borders and boundaries in the geographies we operate in.

Culture – We have established and are cultivating a knowledge-sharing, knowledge-driven culture for long-term success.

Our Professional Advisory Board

Our Professional Advisory Board is a formal committee within our management structure and has a decision-making role. Its role is to advise members of the Board on technical matters. Made up of a collective of minds of the different services within our portfolio, the Board meets regularly to discuss technical matters and encourage an expertise-sharing environment. Its overall purpose is to ensure we regularly consider four lines of sight i.e. foresight, insight, oversight, and hindsight, and to ensure we remain at the forefront of the profession. We also invite external stakeholders such as clients, insurers, academics and subject matter experts as appropriate.

We have been fortunate to have had input from Government bodies, Academia, Manufacturers, Technology partners, and other Fire professionals internationally.

Chaired by our Director of Quality and Chartered Engineer, Dave Quinn, the PAB will push the boundaries, challenge the accepted wisdom to ensure that we create safer spaces for future generations. Promoting our profession and becoming ambassadors not only for BB7 but also the wider engineering community.

The PAB provides direction to a number of Technical Networks to bring together those within BB7 who have the expertise and knowledge to discuss, debate, and deliver technical excellence within their field. These Technical Networks include a Fire and Smoke Modelling Group, A Structures Group, an External Walls Group, a Passive Fire Protection Group and much more. They provide opportunities for all of us to enhance our individual and collective knowledge together in each of these areas. By working collectively across England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland these Technical Networks the team can ensure that efforts are coordinated and focused on the areas that will have the most impact on day-to-day project delivery, both today and in the future.

The work driven by the PAB, and supported by the Technical Networks will challenge the status quo, and ensure that we remain at the forefront of our profession. It compliments our BB7 Learning Lounge initiative which ensures our professionals are provided with an abundance of high quality Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to satisfy their competency obligations with Professional Institutions. The PAB continually refreshes and re-vitalises our service portfolio, and standard scopes to ensure they remain relevant to our clients needs, and it provides overarching governance and control to our fantastic Graduate Development Programme which is there to help grow and inspire our apprentices and graduates who will benefit from our systematic approach to knowledge sharing, our learning culture and our lazer like focus on quality.

‘As engineers we have an obligation to society. The PAB and its Technical Networks help us focus and coordinate our efforts to maximise our impact on improving the safety of our built environments whilst at the same time helping to make them great places to live, work and play.‘
We are creators of safe spaces, where people, business, and communities thrive.