The road to safer buildings

Grenfell, ESA

Steve Martin, director of technical for the ECA considers if fundamental reform is finally on the way in the post-Grenfell construction sector and explains government plans for change.

On 14 June 2017, just before 1:00am, a fire broke out in the 120-apartment Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London. The fire claimed 72 lives. We all know what happened that summer, but it is no less shocking when it is repeated. In the capital city of modern, apparently safety-conscious, Britain, the deadliest structural fire occurred since the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster took place. It was also the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War.

In the months following the fire, former Chair of the Health and Safety Executive Dame Judith Hackitt was tasked with drafting the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety to address the flaws in the system which allowed the disaster to happen.

ECA and the Fire and Security Association (FSA) made a number of influential recommendations to the review, having listened closely to industry concerns over fire safety and competence.

In December 2018, the government published its plan to deliver the recommendations made in Dame Hackitt’s review.

The 64-page document broadly aims to overhaul the Building Regulations, by way of tougher sanctions for those who disregard residents’ safety, more rigorous standards of competence, and a joined-up system for ongoing development. Whilst lacking detail about how exactly a new regulatory system would work, housing Secretary James Brokenshire said that the current system is “not fit for purpose” and that “a radical systemic overhaul” is required. Whilst also admitting this will take time, government is keen that industry leads the way, with the first tranche of consultations due this spring.

The expertise of the Health and Safety Executive, Local Areas Building Control, the Fire and Rescue Service, plus others will be drawn together to form a new ‘Joint Regulator Group’ to pilot new approaches to sanctioning, in advance of any new legislation.

The ECA and the FSA welcome the government’s announcement that the new regulatory system will aim to introduce stronger sanctions and enforcement powers. This would go a long way towards preventing and punishing wrongdoing and help to set the standard for all.

The Government has also said it will ensure that all existing laws and legislation affecting buildings are made clearer, especially regarding the roles and responsibilities of duty holders.

A regulatory ‘gateway’ concept will be trialled, drawing parallels with practice in other industries. In practice, this means that at every stage of a building’s life, duty holders will need to collect, hold, analyse and make available data on fire safety information, creating what’s been described as a digital ‘Golden Thread’.

ECA and the FSA will be actively helping to guide the electrotechnical industry through the range of technical solutions available to achieve this ‘digital by default’ approach.

A primary goal of the Hackitt review and the government’s implementation plan is to develop a joined-up system of assessment for professionals in all industries involved in a building’s lifecycle – design, construction, maintenance and fire, to name a few.

Grenfell, ESA

Fortunately, the electrotechnical and fire/security sectors already benefit from having set up one, well-established competence benchmark, widely known as the Electrotechnical Standard and the Fire, Emergency and Security Standard (FES), respectively.

In other words, for each sector, there is only one bar to clear, but it is sufficiently high to show the competence of all who pass it. The standard can be achieved either by completing a full-term apprenticeship or through recognised accredited prior learning. However, both routes involve a rigorous and comprehensive level of written and practical assessments.

Over the next six months, government intends to take a view on how to deliver such a system for the construction sector. The system is expected to mandate the use of sufficiently qualified professionals who can demonstrate that their skills are up to date.

The Electrotechnical Certification Scheme (ECS) – a voluntary, industry-led initiative – has long helped to preserve the electrotechnical industry’s standards by making possession of an ECS Gold Card conditional on completion of the industry’s recognised benchmark.

The ECS gold card has sought to address competency issues in the electrotechnical sector by introducing a new Registered Electrician status. Electricians can achieve it by being qualified to the current Wiring Regulations (BS 7671), signing up to a Code of Professional Practice, and confirming their commitment to Continued Professional Development.

Subject to consultation, ECA sees scope to extend similarly stringent requirements to other disciplines such as building maintenance or fire and emergency systems.

The government, for the first time, aims to encourage all buildings in scope to use third-party-certified fire safety products which are essential to building safety, and it intends to consult on making this a legal requirement in the spring.

ECA supports third-party certification as a pre-requisite of membership for the installation and maintenance of electrical, fire and emergency systems. Extending this assurance to the products installed in multiple occupancy buildings would be a very positive move indeed.

The road to safer buildings may be a long one but we need to get on with it, and fast. Government, industry and trade bodies such as ECA and the FSA are making significant steps in the right direction, to help ensure that a tragedy like Grenfell never happens again.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Yuttana Contributor Studio

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