Jamie Davis discusses whether the EWS1 form is being used correctly
B y now there are very few people in the UK's built environment industry who have not come across the EWS1 form. When it was introduced by RICS last year, it was designed to provide assurance to lenders and homeowners of high-rise buildings that the fire risk posed by the premises' external wall was acceptable. This assessment of fire risk was only ever intended to focus upon life safety, contrary to many reports and interpretations I have seen (and heard) suggesting that the form is a property protection assessment. This is certainly not the case, as was clarified by its later versions.
The form was originally provided for use on buildings with a storey over 18m. However, it is certainly my experience that the form is not being used this way by mortgage lenders. I have received many enquiries from leaseholders of properties within low-rise buildings (often two to three storeys), where their lender is halting the progress of the sale/purchase until they are in receipt of a satisfactory EWS1. I have also been instructed to provide an EWS1 for a terraced house!
RICS has recently provided further clarification upon the intended application of the form, which reiterates that it should be used for buildings above 18m or in the exceptional cases where low-rise buildings pose a specific concern. RICS has also clarified that an EWS1 is only intended for buildings where there is – or may be – combustible materials present in the walls.
In my experience, this is far from the reality. Many lenders appear to be using the EWS1 process as just another tick in the box for the sale process, regardless of the type of the building. I am sure that this is not the case for all lenders, but I have certainly seen requests from a number of different mortgage providers. I assume that the form is seen by the lender as providing an additional safeguard against negative valuation reports, regardless of the property type, simply protecting the investment.
I was recently involved with a case where the vendor of an apartment (within a three-storey block) had entered into a long and drawn out discussion with her buyer’s mortgage provider, arguing the case as to why an EWS1 was not needed. In my opinion, she was absolutely correct in her view; yet the lender would not shift from their position, which delayed the sale of the property by a couple of months. The external wall in this case was constructed entirely of limited combustibility materials. The managing agent was offering no help or support in the process, leaving the vendor no option but to navigate a complex issue on her own. In this case CABE, among other professional organisations, was approached to assist with providing advice.
Unfortunately, this is a scenario I have experienced far too often in last few months. The EWS1 assessment can be a lengthy and expensive process when performed correctly, and these additional, expensive surveys are being insisted upon too frequently. This goes against the guidance on use of EWS1 issued by RICS.
In the case I have just mentioned, the lack of support from the managing agent interested me. In particular it raises the question as to how relevant the EWS1 form will be later in the year, once the pending Fire Safety Bill is enacted?
The Fire Safety Act (once implemented) brings clarity to the application of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, insofar as the application to the external wall of residential buildings. At the time of writing this article, the Bill is at the reading stage in the Commons. However, the Bill is currently drafted so that it shall apply to the external wall of all residential buildings that contain two or more sets of domestic premises.
Regardless of how this is strictly interpreted in the future, it is evident that the external wall of any block of residential flats is highly likely to be included in the scope of the Fire Safety Order. This in turn means that the external wall of a residential building will have to be considered within a fire risk assessment.
Finance and compliance
If the construction of the external wall will have to be included within a fire risk assessment, managing agents (or, indeed, any responsible person) will not be able to ignore the fact for long that external walls will have to be considered – and likely surveyed – to ensure that they comprise appropriate composition and construction. (I would like to clarify at this stage that I work with a number of highly diligent managing agents who have embraced their upcoming responsibilities in addition to commissioning EWS1s for the properties they manage. I am certainly not suggesting that all managing agents are unprofessional or inconsiderate.)
The Fire Industry Association have recently produced a guidance note that provides their position on the fire risk assessment process of external walls. Rightly, they have suggested that very few fire risk assessors will hold the appropriate experience or knowledge to assess the external wall as part of the fire risk assessment. Consequently, a separate assessment of the external wall will have to be performed by a suitably competent person to ensure that it does not place persons at unreasonable risk in the event of a fire. In practice, the fire risk assessment should reference or recommend this report.
As the Fire Safety Order applies to low-rise buildings to the same extent that it does to buildings above 18m, once the new regulations come into force they will require a far greater number of external wall assessments to be carried out than the EWS1 process was ever intended to service.
So perhaps the overburdensome EWS1 form is not that bad after all, and mortgage lenders are just ahead of the regulatory curve? We have all heard various analogies where compliance is driven by the finance industry. I certainly consider that the EWS1 process is assisting this. No longer is the threat of occasional enforcement by regulators the driver for robust processes on-site. Instead the mortgage providers are driving the need for this assurance, at least as far as external wall construction goes.
The EWS1 form is clear that the evidence for correct design and build must be provided at a very robust level of detail. In practice, this means that unless a robust system is in place on-site, ensuring that the build quality is ratified and evidenced appropriately (usually by plentiful photographs and supporting statements from the clerk of works), it will not be sufficient for the purposes of completing an EWS1 form.
I have inspected a number of new (and nearly-new) completed projects where there is very little evidence available in order to be satisfied that cavity barriers have been correctly fitted within the wall. This has meant that intrusive surveys have had to be undertaken after the build has been completed. This has placed additional time, inconvenience and cost upon the project, before the client will accept the building.
In a couple of cases where we have determined inadequate fitment, this has led to expensive remedial works and potential delay claims from the client.
Therefore, it is really important to stress the need for contract and site managers to ensure that good evidence is provided throughout the build process, especially where the external wall is concerned. At some point the wall build up will have to be ratified for the purposes of a fire risk assessment or, indeed, an EWS1.
I have not yet seen a contractual obligation upon a contractor to supply an EWS1 form, meaning that the burden is likely fall to another party upon completion. As that party is unlikely to have been privy to the design and build process, it is even more important to document and evidence that the construction of the external wall is sufficient. Without this evidence provided, the responsible person will be hard pushed to find an appropriate engineer who is willing to sign the EWS1 form without further expense and surveys being undertaken.
I certainly feel that we have the opportunity as building engineers to encourage that this evidence is provided to the client, so easing the process for the inevitable questions that will be asked during the lifetime of the building.
Jamie Davis developed and presents CABE’s Fire Safety Practitioner Certificate. To book your place visit cbuilde.com/page/firecertificate