Implications for designers: Hackitt’s “Building a Safer Future” report

28 Aug 2018

The recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s report provides a direction of travel for managing fire safety and building safety more generally. Lessons can be applied by designers now, writes Andrew Minson.

The much-anticipated final report from Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, published in May, has spawned significant activity in a short period of time. This has included government consultations, industry-wide reviews of specific topic areas such as competency and, on the last day before the summer recess, the appointment of Hackitt as chair of a soon-to-be established Industry Safety Steering Group “to drive the culture change needed to improve safety and hold the construction industry to account”.

In her report, Dame Judith Hackitt recognises that the use of non-combustible materials “inherently provides higher levels of protection” and calls for a “focus on reducing ongoing building risks during the occupation and maintenance phase”.

Hackitt also recommends creation of a clearly identifiable ‘duty holder’ role – with responsibility for safety for the whole building. This covers the whole of a building’s life cycle, including design, construction and operation. The duty holder must also present the building’s safety case to a new Joint Competent Authority (JCA), made up of Local Authority Building Standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive.

The principle of the duty holder builds on an equivalent in the CDM regulations. Hackitt has recognised that, rather than reinvent a completely new wheel, it makes sense to evolve the wheel we already have.

In fire safety terms, whoever fills the duty holder role that Hackitt proposes will have to mitigate fire risk. While it will take time to introduce the JCA and duty holder role, designers through existing CDM regulations already have responsibility to mitigate risks. Given that Hackitt has stated, as noted above, that higher levels of protection are provided through use of non-combustible materials, designers have every reason, and arguably an obligation, to choose non-combustible concrete solutions.

Concrete is fundamentally simple to detail and construct to comply with known standards. There is a long history of testing, codification and positive performance in use. This is in direct contrast to combustible structural materials which, for basic reasons of combustibility, are harder to justify using.

Concrete designs, in terms of fire safety, are also highly resilient to changes in overall building design as the fire protection is built-in and inherent. This mitigates risk – an obligation of the designer.

There is also greater coherence in the design and construction process. There is no reliance on a specialist installer of fire protection measures, who may retain a design element in its work package as part of the detailed design, potentially after construction has started – which risks the JCA rejecting that design element. This is a risk to the programme as it seems the proposed JCA will have powers to halt construction work at particular project landmarks.

Another area of risk is during operation, when there are multiple occupiers of flats in a residential building. Here, the concern for the duty holder is that one of these residents, behind their own front door, carries out work on their flat that compromises the fire resilience. In a steel or timber frame building, which uses lightweight stud wall partitions, there is the strong possibility of fire protection being compromised whenever a resident retrofits the electrics or sinks a television into a wall or installs downlighters in the ceiling. But the risk of that happening is much lower if the building has been constructed using concrete compartmentation.

Also during operation, with respect to cladding, a concrete rainscreen or external decorative skin is non-combustible and does not need any fire retardant treatment at the point of construction or re-application during the lifetime of the building. Designers need to consider if they are fulfilling their CDM obligations, when they choose an external skin that requires reapplication of fire retardants over a building’s life cycle.

Hackitt’s report has highlighted a responsibility that has always been there for designers, engineers and contractors – constructing safe buildings with minimal fire risk. Rightly, she has identified that the best way to reduce that risk is through use of non-combustible materials. To be clear: concrete is non-combustible. Timber in all it forms, including cross laminated timber, is combustible.