Fire safety regulations, most importantly, the Building Safety Act, are a trending topic in the construction industry. The changes to the regulatory framework in response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy are beginning to take effect. Some issues are posing major challenges for those involved in designing and planning new developments, for example:

  • the requirement for multiple staircases for high-rise residential buildings
  • the long-awaited revisions to BS 9991

We will delve into these areas in our smoke control newsletter and in later articles. For now, we will look at the impact that regulatory change is having on existing buildings, and what lies ahead for developers, owners, and operators of higher-risk buildings.

Smoke control system failures

In a recent article for the SCA in the CIBSE Journal, Group SCS Director Allan Meek highlighted the fact that there appear to be many inoperable smoke control systems in the field. This is also evidenced by the recent CROSS Safety Report, which suggests that an estimated 60-80% of buildings have failed cause-and-effect testing.

These failures have been attributed to flaws such as:

  • Vents opening in the wrong direction
  • Design-critical vents not opening at all
  • Systems not ‘locking out’ allowing the operation of vent doors beyond the fire floor

Common reasons for system failures

Many issues can be put down to the incompetence or ignorance of installers. Additionally, disregard for product test standards and cost-cutting appear to be common among some installers. This has often gone undiscovered at handover, possibly due to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) not being familiar with all technical details. The AHJ may not deal with complex smoke control systems on a regular basis and therefore have no processes in place to monitor effective implementation. Moreover, the prevalence of fire-engineered smoke control solutions exasperates the issue as there is no handbook to refer to for definitive requirements.

Nevertheless, any deficiencies present at handover should be picked up and rectified by the organisation carrying out regular maintenance before any harm is caused.

What will the Building Safety Regulator registration change?

We believe that things are about to change drastically as the new regulations start to take effect, in particular:

The Building Safety Act brings in a wide range of changes, however the most significant for our industry is the need to register all high-rise residential buildings with the Building Safety Regulator and produce a Building Safety Case for each. Registration started in April 2023 and must be completed by the end of October this year. It is currently proposed that in the building safety case, the principal accountable person must confirm whether to their knowledge the building met the appropriate building standards applying at the time of completion.

The Building Safety Case will identify all measures in place in the building to cater for an incident and their suitability and condition. This includes the smoke control system, which the responsible person must tell the BSR about as part of the registration process. Read our article about compiling a Building Safety Case Report for more details.

Presently, many owners of buildings have little understanding of what systems they have, what their performance should be, how they are tested, and if they meet the appropriate regulations. Unfortunately, many of the companies maintaining these buildings are not much better informed. Compiling the building safety case should prompt those accountable to thoroughly audit their management regimes and go through the process of ensuring all the fire safety measures are certified as suitable for the purpose.

Concerns about competence

Until recently, there has been no simple way of checking the competence of smoke control vendors. With the industry being largely unregulated, those responsible for higher-risk buildings may have placed themselves in an unenviable position. Some building owners are facing rectification costs in the thousands and even millions of pounds as long-standing deficiencies come to light.

In practice, very few companies undertaking routine maintenance of smoke control systems have the required knowledge and skills to assess and certify a smoke control system, including:

  • undertake an assessment of the smoke control provision
  • ascertain the appropriate standards for the products taking into account the age of the building
  • understand the performance requirements of systems or develop a design from scratch when there is insufficient information available
  • performance-test to the relevant standards

Unfortunately, this expertise goes far beyond the level of an average fire alarm specialist who offers smoke control maintenance. We wrote about the differences between competent smoke control and fire alarm engineers at length in a separate article.

How to ensure the competence of smoke control contractors

The good news is that since July 2018 there has been a third-party certification scheme for smoke control system installation and maintenance. The IFC SDI 19 scheme has four categories of membership. Level 4 is the highest and the one appropriate for companies involved in assessing the design and performance of existing systems. Employing a level 4 certified provider to assess and performance check systems is a reliable route for Accountable Persons to discharge their obligations under the new legislation.

Currently, the IFC website lists 20 installers as level 4-certified. This number is very low when you consider how many buildings still need an assessment and may need remedial work to be carried out. In our experience, the CROSS report’s estimate of 60-80% defective systems is no exaggeration. Many of these systems with major defects remain undetected and continue to pose risks to building occupants.

If you’re not sure what to look for in a smoke control system assessment, read our simple guide to the assessment and certification process for high-rise buildings.

How to ensure your systems are compliant

With more than 13,000 buildings being affected by the new legislation and 20 certified companies, our advice is to act early. The demand for competent providers is not likely to be met and many buildings with defective systems could be subject to expensive temporary measures like waking watches or even evacuation.

Our key advice for developers, owners, and accountable persons of higher-risk buildings is to act with urgency when it comes to the fire safety regulations for buildings. There is a lack of competent smoke control specialists, which means that it may be difficult to find a suitable partner when it comes to assessing and maintaining your systems.

Overlooking fire safety can cost lives and make you legally liable for not taking action on time. We recently wrote about the Beechmere Retirement Village Prosecutions where six companies are being prosecuted for failing to comply with the Fire Safety (Regulatory Reform) Order 2005.

If you would like to discuss a building you are working on, just fill out the form to contact our Service & Support team.