Industry opinion

Building construction of apartment blocks, with cranes, at Battersea in south west London-Image credit - Getty - 1270520012

Neil Kirwin, Southern Specification Manager at SFS, believes early technical design engagement with product manufacturers can help to improve fire safety.

Few areas of building and specification have seen as much scrutiny and change as fire safety. Construction product manufacturers are rightly expected to be transparent about their product testing, with clear communication of the results. However, even where that is in place, a suitable product or system might be rejected from a specification due to the culture of risk aversion as the industry seeks to navigate the changes. Specifiers might find themselves looking for solutions that the market cannot provide, or that are an overspecification for the project because expectations are not aligned with what is required or available.

I think there are questions to ask of the testing regime generally. Do different parties associated with construction projects understand what is being tested and why? Are the results communicated clearly – first from the test house to the manufacturer, and then from the manufacturer to the architectural and specification audience? Are national building regulations clear enough about what is required and why? And is enough value placed on system testing in the first place – especially when installers can seek to substitute individual components in a building envelope system?

Different fire safety measures and requirements in the different countries of the UK only add to the complexity. In Scotland, combustible materials have been banned from external wall cladding systems of residential properties, and other relevant buildings, with a storey level of or above 11m even where good test results have been demonstrated (ie the material has effectively complied with BS 8414). This is because performance under BS 8414 is no longer considered a means of adherence to the Scottish Building Regulations (Amendment 2022). The regulations in England continue to use 18m as a threshold, with requirements applying to relevant buildings but excluding specified attachments that are part of the wall construction.

It raises another question: how will changing fire safety regulations impact on other performance criteria? BR 135 sets out the performance criteria for cladding systems in terms of fire safety. Changing thermal performance requirements are increasing insulation thickness in the building envelope, and we are seeing building envelopes with insulation so thick that it cannot be fixed and meet the BR 135 criteria.


neil kirwin - CREDIT_Supplied

The SFS Group AG is concerned with precision components and assemblies, mechanical fastening systems, tooling and logistics systems. It is a global company with headquarters in Switzerland.


It’s good to talk

Earlier engagement in technical design with building product manufacturers certainly helps to reduce the complexity of meeting fire safety requirements. It allows specifiers to work closely with manufacturers of building envelope systems to establish what is required and what solutions are available. Regulatory requirements can be met without overspecification. The specifier can progress through the design stages confident of having a robust specification and a compliant solution. Most importantly, they won’t have assumed any risk for its selection.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving robust specifications and closing performance gaps is cost engineering. Seeking to substitute products purely on cost grounds leads to more risk and greater uncertainty, as it doesn’t take a whole building view of the project. No reassurances that an alternative product is similarly approved can surmount the fact that, often, the proposed substitution has not been tested or certified as part of the original build-up.

Early engagement, then, leads to better understanding of expectation and performance (curtailing this later-stage value engineering that introduces risk) and it prioritises safety.

SFS Talks technical papers: bit.ly/SFSTalks

Image credit | Getty | Supplied

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