By Ian King, COO, Zeroignition
The Grenfell tragedy shocked the industry into realising that much more needs to be done to ensure the buildings we live in are properly equipped to protect occupants from harm. Couple this with the new Building Safety Bill that is being slowly drip-fed through Parliament, and it becomes very clear that fire safety is on everyone’s radar. The high-profile Bill has re-affirmed how notoriously complex fire safety compliance is today, and will be, within a new, more stringent legal framework.
However, the Bill doesn’t fully address some of the most prominent issues the industry faces, namely, cost, choice and capacity. Add to this the lack of construction product testing facilities and it’s clear the Bill will not eradicate all the issues embedded in the industry. The Local Government Association (LGA) is encouraging more reliable testing systems that are also more user friendly. It also wants to see businesses caught selling products under false pretences held accountable. “The new regulator must have real powers and sanctions and the regulatory system must be properly funded,” says the organisation. “Trading Standards authorities have found themselves caught between costly and complex arguments between test labs about the correct approach to testing, with no way to resolve them.”
We couldn’t agree more. Since our founding, Zeroignition has been keen to see a vast improvement in labelling by product manufacturers. There is a real need to ensure it is up-to-date, accurate and easy to navigate, to help ensure the materials specified for building projects are fit for purpose. Without this clear guidance, change will never materialise and people and properties will remain inadequately protected from fire.
Knowledge is power
A lack of in-depth knowledge regarding product safety standards is another industry issue which needs addressing urgently. It needs to be a non-negotiable that architecture, specification and construction professionals carry a detailed understanding of fire safety when specifying and building. We investigated this for ourselves, post-Grenfell, and the results reveal exactly how serious the knowledge gaps are. The survey was conducted across the UK, Germany and France and it was abundantly clear knowledge levels surrounding fire and fire protection amongst some of our most trained professionals in architecture, were worryingly low.
Of those questioned, just 3% of architects were able to correctly define the four basic fire protection terms: active fire protection, passive fire protection, fire resistance and reaction to fire.
A mere 2% of the architects interviewed said they’d received comprehensive fire protection training. Whilst most agreed they had had some sort of training, less than one in ten (8%) said they’ve never had fire protection training. I’m sure you’d agree, these findings stress a real need for serious upskilling to ensure those building liveable structures are well informed and up to speed on the essential fire safety requirements.
Industry professionals are becoming increasingly aware of how essential this upskilling of their knowledge is. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, NBS (formerly National Building Specification) says it saw a marked increase in webinar attendance during this time, as more people were working from home and had time to spare without having to spend time out of the office travelling. Online webinars covered a variety of different topics including fire safety, and were attended by product manufacturers, as well as architects and specifiers.
The traditional approach needs to change
Construction projects are incredibly complex involving a myriad of decisions. Each choice has a knock-on effect and there can be unforeseen results when a systematic approach to fire protection isn’t adopted.
While architects know that a methodical way is best, there’s clearly some scepticism as to how achievable this is. There is still more to be done by manufacturers and architectural bodies to ensure best practice is fully established and followed.
Beyond this, the construction industry needs to learn from other industries, such as automotive and aviation, which focus on a checklist approach to reduce harm to passengers. If people rely on memory, mistakes happen and the simple action of checking off points can stop fire planning elements being missed.
With a third of architects saying their current employer doesn’t spend enough on fire protection training, there’s clearly an opportunity for the construction and manufacturing sectors to step in to the breach and help fund such training.
Beyond this, we need to look to the latest in communications theory and understanding decision making to ensure that fire communications are presented in a way that sticks, and use nudge theory to ensure that it’s easier to do the right thing.
The digital ‘revolution’ that the construction industry is currently experiencing is thankfully enforcing some positive change. ‘Digital footprints’ which explicitly show that the building criteria is correct and safe, are becoming increasingly essential. This will definitely help to implement watertight fire safety checks before a building is handed over to the occupant or end user.
We’ve also seen first-hand that manufacturers are realising the essential need to invest heavily in R&D projects. An advancement in materials coming to market will only help further boost fire safety awareness in construction and provide added protection for new building projects.
Momentum towards positive change must continue. The pandemic has revealed a real willingness to learn and improve, and if this continues I am certain the sector will begin to adapt and innovate further and faster than ever before. Ensuring that we can demonstrate safety and wellbeing are being considered at the heart of the building design will help bolster end-user confidence no end.
Only when fire protection is taken with the extreme seriousness it deserves can we start looking at new approaches to construction that reinforce a building’s primary role: keeping people safe and secure. Fire retardant products require investment in the right testing facilities, digitally-managed labelling, transparency in the supply chain, and decisions made based on solid training and deep-rooted understanding of compliance. Having confidence in the products we specify, buy and install is amounts to much more than being focused on quality – it’s about keeping people safe and secure in the homes we build for them.