The blaze at a Building Regs-compliant, timber-clad residential block prompts searching questions
Just a handful of days before the second anniversary of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people died, and another small fire at another block of flats in the capital got out of control, tearing across the outside wall of the building, and causing huge damage.
Bellway, the developer of the six-year-old Samuel Garside block of flats in Barking, has said the fire appeared to have been started by a barbecue on one of the scheme’s timber-clad balconies. From videos of the resulting conflagration, it is clear how it quickly spread from balcony to balcony in the six-storey block, the flames evoking painful echoes of Grenfell. Ultimately it destroyed 10 flats, according to local council Barking and Dagenham, and damaged more than 40 more.
As with that fateful night in another part of London two years ago, the blaze was quickly followed by allegations that residents’ concerns had been ignored or downplayed in the months and years before. Fortunately, unlike Grenfell, this time round there were no serious injuries or deaths.
Nevertheless, the incident is causing many to ask more questions of the Building Regulations regime that permitted the almost entirely timber-clad scheme, saying that the absence of fatalities may have had more to do with luck than good judgment. This is particularly the case since it seems likely that such a scheme, below the Building Regulations’ key threshold height of 18m, would still be permissible now and – astonishingly, on current trajectory – even after all the government’s post-Grenfell reforms are brought in. So, should the regulations be extended to other, smaller buildings? And if buildings like this are a risk, should any new regulations be applied retrospectively to make them safer?
Andrew Mellor, partner at housing architect PRP, says the fire has spooked a number of his practice’s clients, particularly social housing providers, given how many low- and medium-rise blocks are clad in timber. “Timber was really fashionable about 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s caused a lot of concern. I’ve had clients call me and say they have similarly-designed blocks and what should they do.”
He adds: “The initial thing worried landlords should do is to do a risk assessment, and work out what the risks are.”
I’ve had clients call me and say they have similarly-designed blocks and what should they do
Andrew Mellor, PRP
But despite these concerns, there is no requirement within the guidance that sits beneath the Building Regulations, even now, for residential buildings lower than 18m to use materials of limited combustibility, and nor would there have been when the NHBC, acting as Approved Inspector, signed it off prior to completion in 2013. Even the government’s ban on combustibles, brought in last December, only applies to building above 18m in height. Fire engineer Steve Cooper, director at consultant Tenos, says: “In general, if the building is less than 18m, timber is perfectly acceptable.
“There’s nothing in the Approved Document [B] that says you shouldn’t do this,” though he says in the “current climate” clients would likely take a much more risk-averse approach, and he would advise them to “look very carefully” at what other measures were in place to protect from fire.
Cooper adds that, while this fire may be worrying for residents and landlords of similar blocks, it doesn’t necessarily mean the regulations, which are designed only to limit risk of deaths and injuries and not to protect buildings themselves from damage, have failed. “No-one died and no-one was injured here. You could argue that from a Building Regulations perspective it did the job,” he says. “Everyone walked out.”
No-one died and no-one was injured here. You could argue that from a Building Regulations perspective it did the job
Steve Cooper, Tenos
This is certainly the argument made by the developer of the scheme, Bellway, which said in a statement it takes fire safety “very seriously”. “We understand that the blaze was contained to the external envelope of the eastern elevation of the building,” the statement said. “We are relieved that the fire protection measures within the building, which received all regulatory approvals, ensured that occupants were safely evacuated.”
Likewise, a spokesperson for an agency, HomeGround, acting for the current owner of the building, Adriatic Land, said that social media reports stating that sprinkler systems and fire alarms didn’t work were incorrect. “There was no sprinkler system in the building as it is below the height [30m] at which they need to be installed,” he said. London Assembly member Andrew Boff, who was on the scene of the blaze, tweeted that he had been in the building helping to get people out and “heard no fire alarms.” But HomeGround’s spokesperson said: “The fire alarms did work as they were intended to – they didn’t go off everywhere in the estate as they are designed to only go off in parts where people need to evacuate.”
Not everyone is so sanguine, with many asking what the outcome would have been if the same fire had happened at night with more residents at home and asleep. The chair of the RIBA’s Expert Group on Fire Safety, Jane Duncan, said it underlined the wider message that without “sprinklers and fire alarms installed, maintained and working, we might not be so lucky next time.”
And it is not hard to see why, despite it apparently being in line with guidance, questions are being raised about the design. The balconies were not only, Bellway confirmed, both clad and decked in timber, but were also stacked vertically, allowing flames to spread one to another. Mellor says of blocks designed like this: “It forms a kind of timber ladder without a fire break”, while Paul Bussey, technical design lead at architect AHMM and also a member of the RIBA’s expert group, says simply that “Timber balconies are a poor idea.”
He says that regulations for buildings below 18m might need tightening with respect to timber cladding and balconies in future. “It’s a good thing the fire was during the day when people were out,” he says.
If you are going to put combustible material on the outside of a building you need to ensure it does not form a fire path
Tony Jones, MPA The Concrete Centre
Tony Jones, principal structural engineer at trade body MPA The Concrete Centre, says while the scheme appeared to have obeyed the letter of the guidance, it is arguable that the functional requirement of Building Regulations held in law – that “the external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire” on all buildings – wasn’t met. “Fundamentally the building did not meet the intention of the regulation,” he says. “Designers may hide behind Approved Document B, but if you are going to put combustible material on the outside of a building you need to ensure it does not form a fire path.”
Ronnie King, a former treasurer at the Fire Sector Federation, and now an advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, says the regulations need changing, despite the fact there is nothing so far that the government has announced to suggest it is minded to tighten rules on residential building lower than 18m. “Flats below 18m are a risk. In my experience people won’t get out of buildings three floors or higher. I don’t think anyone should have their home wrapped in combustible material. Not now, knowing what we know,” he says. “We’ve got to make the regulations tighter.”
I don’t think anyone should have their home wrapped in combustible material. Not now, knowing what we know
Ronnie King, All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group
The Concrete Centre’s Jones says that the 18m threshold should be simply a maximum above which non-combustible materials are required, and that buildings of lower height should be risk-assessed. “There should be more emphasis on the wider consideration of the fire risks for all buildings when choosing construction materials,” he says. “This fire occurred during the day with able-bodied occupants. The situation could have been very different in, say, a care home. It may have been different if the fire occurred at night, particularly if some of the fire systems were faulty.”
But even if the regulations are tightened, that would do nothing for the many timber-clad blocks already in existence, as Building Regulations are not retrospective. The government’s post-Grenfell Building Safety Programme has, however, identified those buildings higher than 18m clad with flammable ACM panels, and allocated money to help landlords replace them. And this year, the government has announced it is testing to decide whether to expand this programme to cover other potentially risky materials, including zinc composite material, copper composite material, aluminium honeycomb, high-pressure laminates (HPL), brick slip systems and reconstituted stone.
But applying this further to all timber-clad flat blocks under 18m would be an enormous expansion. The Parliamentary Fire Safety Group’s King says: “There will be a lot more buildings at risk between 10m and 18m – that’s where we’ve got a problem. It’s very tricky to make regulations retrospective, but there should be a halfway house that allows work to get done. The problem is the cost.”
Likewise, Clive Betts MP, chair of the influential housing, communities and local government select committee, says the fire raises the question of “whether you make regs retrospective, or specifically extend the retrofit programme to cover additional products.”
AHMM’s Bussey says he understands the housing ministry (MHCLG) is considering requiring fire improvements to be made when refurbishment is carried out, but that it has not yet reached a conclusion. “MHCLG are minded to rectify such current non-compliance issues retrospectively,” he says. “But this is a big issue since how far do you go back with historic buildings? They are considering it, but they may never [do it] without societal pressure.”
The Concrete Centre’s Jones says the decision to retrofit should be based on risk, not just a narrow definition of what materials contain combustible elements. “The safety case for each building needs to be made to a competent regulator. There are some forms of cladding that contain combustible materials that have a proven record,” he says.
The safety case for each building needs to be made to a competent regulator
Tony Jones, MPA The Concrete Centre
Inevitably, of course, a risk-based approach will understandably mean a continued focus on taller buildings first, meaning residents on these types of blocks may not have their concerns addressed any time soon. A spokesperson for Samuel Garside House agent HomeGround, for example, says it has not yet made a decision as to whether to replace the timber balconies on properties identical to those in the fire which were unaffected. Tenos’ Cooper says: “In an ideal world we would do it all now. But we’ve got to fund it. And so we’ve got to prioritise where the highest risk is. And statistically those buildings that are lower present less of a risk.”
Cooper says he hopes that safer behaviours will now be driven by insurance concerns, with both systems themselves and installers and consultants struggling to get insurance if involved with combustible cladding. “Clauses in professional indemnity insurance aren’t related to the height of buildings you’re working on so this pressure will come across all buildings. It’ll push people to design systems that are inherently safer, and less likely to claim against.”
Two years on from Grenfell, it appears that commercial pressures are acting more strongly than the government’s regulatory response.
Barking fire – what do we know?
The Fire Brigade was called to a fire at 15.31 on Saturday 8 June at Samuel Garside House in De Pass Gardens, Barking. The 13.8m-high 4-6 storey block, comprising 79 flats and designed by architect Sheppard Robson, was completed by Bellway in 2013 as part of the first phase of the mammoth 10,800 home Barking Riverside development. Reserved matters planning approval had been granted in 2012, with building control approval granted by the NHBC, acting as an Approved Inspector.
The London Fire Brigade initially said that 20 flats had been destroyed by the fire, with 10 more damaged by heat and smoke, after 100 firefighters with 15 engines had “fought hard” to stop the blaze spreading laterally to other buildings. The council later said that only 10 flats were “completely destroyed”, but that 43 more were damaged. The fire brigade said that fire investigators and scientific advisors were carrying out extensive investigations into the cause of the fire, while Bellway, in a statement, said initial reports suggested it was caused by a barbecue on a resident’s balcony.
The Fire Brigade said the blaze was under control by 18.04, with temporary accommodation organised for affected residents by the council. Residents included a mixture of Southern Housing Group tenants and private leaseholders. The block is owned by Adriatic Land 3 (GR1) Limited, an investment vehicle created by fund manager Longharbour. Agent HomeGround is employed by Adriatic to represent its interests, while day-to-day management and maintenance is carried out by RMG, a subsidiary of housing association Places for People.
A spokesperson for HomeGround said in a statement that the fire alarm system was working as intended, that it had independently audited the fire safety strategy in November 2018 and that RMG had carried out a Fire Risk Assessment in January this year. The fire safety strategy had been changed from “stay put” to “simultaneous evacuation” strategy, and a waking watch had been instituted while Bellway carried out remedial works. The spokesperson said: “We are in ongoing conversations with the fire authorities, the insurance company as well as Bellway and the other stakeholders involved, to develop a plan for the immediate work that needs to be undertaken as well as the longer term remediation work that needs to be done.”