Under review: latest progress on building safety workstreams

The Grenfell Inquiry considered the requirements of Part B of the Building Regulations and associated guidance and a review of the Approved Document was announced in 2020. Hywel Davies looks at the progress of workstreams supporting improved fire safety design guidance

DR Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE

In April 2020, the government gave an overview of the research to be commissioned to inform the technical review of the fire safety guidance contained in Approved Document B (ADB). 

Ten packages of research or evidence gathering were advertised for tender and contractors appointed, with expert steering groups to support them. 

These commissions cover a range of topics based on the call for evidence around Part B that was issued in December 2018.

Each of the topics is an area in which we need to know more to improve fire safety-related design in buildings.

The current state of the various workstreams is described below, and provides an overview of the work under way to support the development of revisions to current guidance in ADB.

1. Specialised housing and care homes: A study of current design approaches, and establishing current operational, management and usage practices across the specialised housing and care home sector. This workstream will review the effectiveness of current provisions in ADB and consider international approaches. It will also include further research into alternative approaches to fire safety in these types of buildings. The project is under way with outputs being considered by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

2. Means of escape for disabled people: Research into whether the current provisions in ADB are fit for purpose, based on realistic expectation of management and building use. The research will consider up-to-date evidence and whether current practices are effective in meeting the minimum requirements under Part B1 of Schedule 1 of the Building Regulations (2010). This project is under way.

3. Balconies, spandrels and glazing: This work sets out to develop a comprehensive evidence base of common modern design approaches to balconies, spandrel panels and glazing. It is conducting a review of fire risk from these elements and, where appropriate, is intended to deliver an experimental programme to develop a robust evidence base to support the ADB review. This work is awarded and under way.

4. Structural fire resistance and fire separating elements: This will assess current provisions in ADB for structural fire resistance and fire-separating elements. It will establish the evidence base, and review it in the light of modern evidence on design, technology and fire loading. It will also investigate alternative approaches. This work is under way.

5. Trigger heights and thresholds: This workstream is under way and considering the thresholds now used in the guidance. The workstream is focused on whether they are based on relevant and up-to-date evidence and whether they provide adequate guidance to designers. It aims to identify the basis and underpinning evidence for trigger thresholds used in ADB and Regulation 7(2) of the Building Regulations 2010.

Each topic is an area in which we need to know more to improve fire safety-related design

6. Smoke and toxicity: This research aims to provide the evidence base to assess the need and means to regulate toxicity of construction products in the event of a building fire (in England). Work is under way.

7. Construction technologies and design: This work is considering whether ADB adequately addresses common construction practice and developing technologies. It will identify and review modern construction technologies and trends in design and building use, and will review the current provisions in ADB for the application of modern construction technologies and trends in design and building use.

8. Classification of external wall construction review: This is reviewing the assessment methodology for fire performance of external wall systems. It includes a review of the BS 8414 methodology and BR 135 classification to assess whether this testing regime is fit for purpose and based on robust evidence to keep buildings safe and people confident in the regulatory standards.

9. Means of escape in blocks of flats. This is a joint project under way, with the Home Office to review the current evacuation strategy and design principles for means of escape in blocks of flats, and to consider if they are fit for purpose. The project has four elements: 

  • A review to assess academic evidence on methods of evacuation
  • Physical testing of evacuation strategies and interactions with fire and rescue operations
  • Building design research to evaluate fire safety provisions in buildings
  • A study of human behaviour and public confidence, to better understand public perception and understanding of evacuation strategies.

10. Property protection: This is considering how other countries approach property protection in Building Regulations, and analysing evidence on the costs and benefits of different regulatory approaches to property protection.

All these projects are addressing areas in which we need further evidence to inform policy development and support the provision of up-to-date guidance to building professionals. 

The guidance can never replace competent engineering practitioners, particularly for more complex buildings, where the guidance in the ADs may not fully reflect what is necessary to meet the functional requirements.

Anyone with an interest in fire safety design should be aware of this work and that it is intended to inform future updates to the Building Regulations, which will be subject to consultation in due course.