Stuccoed house

Fireproof Building Design and Construction

The practice of designing and constructing a fireproof building depends not only on the quality of materials. There are a lot of issues you need to address as a building owner. Some of these issues are beyond your scope, but it is good to be familiar with them, anyway.

They came up in light of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy that marked a new awakening in the fire safety of buildings. If you look to build either a tower block or a three-storey home, then it this is a ripe time to take fire safety regulations seriously. It cannot be any easier if you look to build a flat or attached house.

In the United Kingdom and especially in London, experts have begun to question how the number of contractors, the extent of Council supervision, unity and cohesion among contractors, and privatisation affect fire safety.

As the famous dictum goes, “too many cooks spoil the broth”, the involvement of several contractors in the construction and design of a building has raised concerns. It is beginning to dawn on fire safety and architectural experts that the involvement of many contractors tends to undermine the quality of local Council supervision and accountability.

To understand this point clearly, let us first examine the Grenfell Tower case in regards to fireproof building safety.

Grenfell Tower

The owners of the Grenfell Tower are Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCMTMO) who assumed that role on Council’s behalf. They hired Rydon who subcontracted the re-cladding and refurbishment services to at least eight other companies. Such involvement could have played a role in diminishing the local Council’s oversight.

fireproof building
Above: Grenfell Tower cladding that was added just before the tragedy

According to Building Design, gone are the days when the local Councils could handle the project’s oversight exclusively. Nowadays, it has become a practice to find many players handling a single building project. Under such circumstances, cohesion and unity could be a mirage. To make matters, you may fail to notice whether your subcontractors are installing appropriate fire safety features.

fireproof building
Above: Grenfell Tower just before and after it caught fire

The Quality of Building Materials

The manner in which the fire spread on the building’s exterior has sparked the question of what materials made up the cladding. An aluminium skin was engulfing a flammable filler cladded the building. This could have accelerated the spread of fire.

Sadly, though, many buildings in London have a cladding that “consists of two half millimetre thick sheets of aluminium with a core material between them. The issue, in this case, was that the core material used was polyethene, and polyethene is combustible.”

So, if your building has to clad, it is a good idea to check whether it is made of aluminium surrounding a polyethene core. If so, then your building is in grave danger of going ablaze. Why? Polyethylene catches fire easily; hence, the surrounding aluminium layer will not do much to shield your building.

Furthermore, even though aluminium is a fire retardant material, it can buckle at certain temperatures. Picture this. Polyethylene ignites and spreads intense heat quickly. Then, within no time, the aluminium begins to bend. Next, fire makes its way into the recess of the material.

However, if you own a building with cladding in London, there is a high chance it will fail a combustibility testing. Hence, companies, which manufacture building materials should have an obligation to subject their products to that testing process. Nonetheless, this practice is very controversial because there is currently no protocol by the local Councils to update it.

Building Regulations

You must ensure compliance of your contractors with the Building Regulations. However, when it comes to choice of what building materials to use, controversy remains. According to the government, if your building fails the combustibility test, then you are non-compliant.

Thus, the practice of designing, retrofitting and repairing historic buildings like the Grenfell Tower has come into sharp focus. Just before the building caught fire, contractors added flammable insulation panels surrounded by a composite material of aluminium. Also on the radar include what tests you need to subject the structural and non-structural features when refurbishing.

There have been calls to review the Building Regulations’ Part B (applies exclusively to England and Wales). This is amid the realisation that building and design have evolved considerably during the last decade.

It is imperative for the local Councils not to focus overly on getting rid of polyethene. Instead, they should focus on the entire system. Moreover, there are a variety of combustible materials, yet it is common to find some authorities removing cladding with non-combustible fillers.

It is a good idea to ensure that the floors of your building sandwich an appropriate vertical “compartmentalisation”. In that regard, PRP Architects argue,

“Whatever cladding system you use, you have to incorporate fire stops at the line of each floorplate and every party wall around a dwelling to prevent the fire from spreading up the façade. The current regulations are robust enough, but they have to be properly followed, and the architects' drawings properly executed on site”.

All in all, there is an urgent need to improve fire safety standards and fireproof building in London. The local Councils should assume their previous glory and increase their oversight over design and construction. They should not allow contractors to introduce highly combustible materials into structures.

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