In the wake of events such as the 2017 Grenfell disaster and the 2019 Bolton Cube fire, many people have become concerned with the fire safety of high-rise buildings. High-rise buildings present many unique challenges not found with other properties. Combined with the cladding crisis, these have led to several catastrophic incidents. But are high rises safe? And what is being done to prevent more similar incidents?
What is a high-rise building?
Definitions of a high-rise building qualify slightly depending on the source. Generally, high rise refers to buildings between 7 - 10 storeys (23 - 30 metres), though it is sometimes applied to buildings over 18 metres. The 18-metre definition is connected to the reach of fire rescue equipment. It has been adopted in legislation following the Hackett review of building regulation and fire safety.
High Rise Fire Safety
The characteristics of a highrise often include that occupants would reasonably require a lift due to the number of storeys. The height of a high-rise building is beyond the reach of available fire fighting equipment, and their height can affect occupants' ability to evacuate.
These characteristics raise safety concerns, particularly surrounding fire safety.
How The Cladding Crisis Affects High-Rise Buildings
At the heart of the Grenfell disaster is the use of inappropriate building materials. Specifically, unsuitable cladding was used, which allowed the fire to spread through the outside of the building, circumventing any internal fire-stopping measures.
Whilst devastating, the cladding crisis is not an inherent flaw of high-rise buildings. Tighter controls and surveillance on the manufacture and supply of building materials aims to rule out similar incidents.
Challenges Of Evacuating High-Rise Buildings
When we come to evacuating, we encounter an inherent and not easily solved problem of high-rise buildings. Unlike cladding regulations, which can be changed, evacuation procedures are restricted by the property's design.
High-rise buildings are not designed for complete evacuations. The often narrow stairways may struggle to accommodate large numbers of occupants, and a mass of evacuating tenants can make it more challenging for firefighters to access the property. Without access to lifts, less able-bodied people may struggle to exit the building.
What Is Fire Compartmentation?
Fire compartmentation works by separating a building into sections, each separated by fire-resistant compartment walls and floors to prevent the spread to other areas of the building. This allows for a concentrated evacuation of, for example, the affected flat without the need for a full-scale evacuation which brings its own challenges, as discussed earlier.
Fire compartmentation is an element of fire-stopping which is required by UK passive fire protection laws. In accordance with these laws, fire-stopping equipment, such as fire barriers, fire curtains, and fire doors, are placed throughout the building to create a safe exit for tenants and access for emergency services.
Stay Put Policies
High-rise buildings are designed with fire compartmentation in mind. If the fire is not going to spread outside of the flat, it started in there is no requirement for neighbours to evacuate.
Because high-rise buildings are designed to prevent the spread of fires, those not in the area immediately affected are often advised to remain in their flats. This is known as a stay put policy. However, as we have discussed, a stay put policy can be deadly when compartmentation fails, as in the case of Grenfell.
Efforts to tackle the cladding crisis aim to achieve the necessary fire compartmentation for stay put policies to work as intended. With sufficient fire-stopping, residents of flats other than the one where the fire originated should be unaffected by the fire.
But the testing methods used to assess cladding safety, and by extension, the assessment of the risks of fire spreading, have been criticised. This has led to calls to abandon stay put policies.
Making High Rises Safer
With the abovementioned challenges, the best course of action is wide-sweeping industry reform. Concerns about high-rise safety largely stem from the cladding crisis. To effectively improve high-rise safety, the cladding problem needs to be addressed in a big way. Following the Grenfell disaster and the subsequent inquiries and reviews, there have been several changes to laws and regulations aiming to fix the cladding issue.
Building Regulations Review
An independent review of Fire Safety and Building Regulations, led by former HSE Chair Dame Judith Hackitt, was published in 2018. The review revealed regulatory issues, and its recommendations formed the basis of the 2022 Building Safety Act.
Ban On Combustibles
In 2018, the government introduced a combustibles ban. The ban prevents the use of flammable materials in or on the exterior walls of some buildings over 18 metres, including student accommodation, new tower blocks, and hospitals. Although the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety did not directly recommend the ban, it was supported by Hackitt.
Building Safety Act
The Building Safety Act 2022 is the main piece of legislation tackling the cladding crisis and the details outlined in the independent review of Fire Safety and Building Regulations. It addresses accountability issues and outlines plans to hold those responsible for defective work accountable. The act also provides tenants and homeowners with more powers and protections.
To achieve this, the Building Safety Act introduced three new governing bodies;
- the Building Safety Regulator
- the National Regulator of Construction Products
- the New Homes Ombudsman
Several new regulators have been put in place to oversee and enforce the regulatory changes.
Building Safety Regulator (BSR)
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was named the new Building Safety Regulator in the Building Safety Act 2022. The Building Safety Regulator oversees all building and their safety standards and directs building control professionals towards higher levels of competency.
They also have specific duties relating to high-rise buildings. HSE are in charge of leading the new high-rise building regulatory framework. As the Building Safety Regulator, HSE regulates high-rise buildings (which are defined as buildings over 18 metres or with 7 or more storeys).
National Regulator of Construction Products
The National Regulator of Construction Products enforces the new standards for the construction product market. They are tasked with identifying safety concerns, removing unsafe products from the market, and imposing penalties on companies which do not comply with regulatory requirements.
Are High-Rise Buildings Safe?
High-rise buildings present several fire safety challenges. However, many of the problems can be resolved or mitigated. High rises are becoming increasingly safe with increased pressure on the industry to provide better, safer work and more rigorous documentation and surveillance of safety measures. If both external cladding and internal fire-stopping standards remain high, the risks to occupants can be significantly lowered. In addition to higher construction industry standards and better materials, changes to policy surrounding fire response may also offer a safer environment for high-rise occupants.
Reliable and Safe Cladding tools
The scrutiny on the cladding industry has never been higher. People need reliability and trust. They require dependable work from experienced professionals who put their safety first. That is why we work with leading cladding tool brands such as Trumpf. We supply Trumpf panel cutters, shears, nibblers and more to empower your workforce to always deliver the highest quality work.
Learn More About Cladding
If you would like to learn more about cladding. To find out more about the Grenfell fire and subsequent regulatory reform, read our guide to the UK cladding crisis. Or learn more about our cladding tools and products with posts including “A Guide To Roof Clamps”, “Nibbler vs Shears: Which Should You Choose?” and “What Is The Difference Between A Grabo Plus And A Grabo Pro?”.