Government safety guidance on tall buildings

Advice was published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG)  on 18 December last year on ‘external wall systems that do not incorporate Aluminium Composite Material’ – in other words, buildings where the type of cladding used on the Grenfell Tower is not present. Despite this, MHCLG has advised that there are still a range of other materials and risks that pose a threat to buildings over 18m in height (tall buildings). Here we discuss the steps that RPs can take to ensure that they keep their buildings and their tenants safe.

Advice Note 14

The advice was produced by an independent panel of experts who laid out the decisions and steps that must be taken by the owners of buildings and a building’s ‘responsible person'(for buildings that fall within the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005)– the people who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that they and their residents remain safe from fire. The MHCLG’s panel is chaired by Sir Ken Knight, former London Fire Commissioner and former Government Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, and includes other esteemed experts such as Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council and Ann Bentley MBA MICE FRICS, Global Director of Rider Levett Bucknall.

Main recommendations:

  • Limited combustibility materials should be used in existing buildings UNLESS they have passed a BS 8414 test, gaining a BR135 classification
  • Check wall systems have been installed and maintained correctly
  • Obtain an up to date fire risk assessment (FRA) under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005
  • A wall material with a Class 0 rating alone does not evidence a safe wall system

Only materials of ‘limited combustibility’ should be used on the external walls of tall buildings. There are particular classes of materials and tests that those materials must pass in order to meet this standard.

The Advice does emphasis that the safety checks can be carried out by competent professional advisors as well as building owners; so it may be prudent to defer to expert advice if there is any confusion about the materials used. The competency of such advisors, however, is not defined. This could leave RPs in a difficult position; essentially determining the competency of experts themselves when they are seeking to defer to a party with more knowledge than themselves. It is therefore recommended that RPs read the Government’s own information on where to find appropriate professional advisors contained here at Annex A.

Where desktop studies or technical assessments have been carried out by professionals on the likely performance of external wall systems, the building owner must still ensure that a check of the technical basis of such tests has been made. The assumptions should be based on established scientific and engineering principles and supported by reference to relevant BS 8414 fire test data.

Further regulation

The Government also decided in December that it would be implementing the entire suite of recommendations contained in the Hackitt Review. The Hackitt Review was led by Dame Judith Hackitt to provide recommendations to the regulatory system after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

This means that building owners could be liable for tougher sanctions if they are found to fall below safety standards. In light of this it is paramount that sufficient steps are taken, likely to involve taking advice from independent experts as discussed above.

Enforcement recommendations in the Hackitt review included the ability to serve Improvement/Correction Notices and Prohibition Notices on individuals or organisations responsible for buildings. Failing to comply with these notices within a particular time period will be a criminal offence.

Future recommendations are expected to come from the Industry Safety Steering Group, a panel made up of housing, construction and fire experts headed by Hackitt. The Group was established in January 2019 to hold the industry to account and accelerate change.

In summary, those responsible for tall buildings must ensure they have a clear knowledge of the building materials used, procure that checks are completed and that the walls are regularly maintained. RPs should regularly carry out FRAs and obtain professional advice where necessary to comply with the MHCLG advice and the law.

For example, Type 1 FRAs are carried out on common areas only. Type 3 FRAs ensure that common areas as well as a sample of the individual flats are checked for hazards. Although completing Type 3 FRAs as well as Type 1s is a helpful measure in and of itself, this physical presence in flats may also provide an extra level of reassurance for tenants.

The full range of the MHCLG Advice Notes can be found here.