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On 20 January 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) issued Advice for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings (the January Advice). The social housing sector has been awaiting further guidance from MHCLG for some time, particularly concerning the issue of glass-reinforced plastic (“GRP”) composite fire doors.
Those expecting further advice may have been disappointed, as the January Advice is largely a consolidation of the existing MHCLG advice notes regarding fire safety issues in GRP composite fire doors, high-pressure laminate (HPL) cladding, aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding systems, and timber balconies. In particular, a critical omission from the January Advice is the detailed fire test reports from MHCLG’s GRP composite fire door test programme (undertaken in 2018). The January Advice tacitly acknowledges this omission, by advising building owners that “where a large number of doors are involved, and there is significant uncertainty as to the likely fire resistance, advice should be sought from a specialist and/or a sample door might be tested in accordance with BS 476-22/ EN 16324-1”.
The January Advice does offer some helpful indicators as to what steps MHCLG expect building owners to take when assessing fire safety issues, and confirming that engaging with fire safety issues should not be limited to owners of high-rise residential buildings. Headlines include:
- Advice for building owners to “consider the risks of any external wall system and fire doors in their fire risk assessments, irrespective of the height of the building, ahead of” the Fire Safety Bill coming before Parliament (para 1.6);
- “The Expert Panel believes ACM cladding (and other metal composite material cladding) with an unmodified polyethylene filler (category 3) presents a significant fire hazard on residential buildings at any height with any form of insulation” (para 1.15);
- “The view of the Expert Panel is that the level of risk from unsafe HPL systems is not as high a risk as unsafe systems using ACM Category 3 panels”, and MHCLG advise that the removal of ACM cladding should be prioritised over the removal of HPL cladding systems (para 5.13);
- Building owners should review records associated with buildings to determine the external wall systems, including as-built drawings and O&M manuals, and should also engage with contractors and designers responsible for installing those systems where information is missing or inconclusive;
- To the extent that building owners have not recently inspected any buildings with an external wall insulation system with a render or brick-slip finish, they “should consider an immediate audit” of those buildings to identify the condition of the system, including review of technical information and a visual audit of the relevant buildings;
- “Responsible persons should aim to replace existing flat entrance doorsets if they suspect they do not meet the fire or smoke resistance performance in the Local Government Association guide ‘Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats’” (para 10.5); and
- “Check there are no potential routes for fire spread from the interior of the building out onto, or into the cladding system. This would include, for example, the presence and integrity of cavity barriers, and the risk of ignition to the external wall system via window surrounds and fitting details” (para 11.7).
Much of the focus of the January Advice is on building owners taking a proactive approach to fire safety, pending the Fire Safety Bill and establishment of the new Building Safety Regulator. The lack of new information, particularly in relation to GRP composite doorsets, has the potential to impede door replacement programmes and claims for the recovery of door replacement costs. The consequence is that the burden is placed on social housing providers to undertake fire tests of GRP composite doorsets they consider may not meet the minimum 30 minutes’ fire resistance.
The last headline (at paragraph 11.7 of the January Advice) is particularly notable because it appears to advise building owners to undertake Type 4 Fire Risk Assessments including intrusive investigations into buildings. This is new advice from MHCLG. In our experience, intrusive investigations will often identify construction problems, even if those problems are unrelated to the nature of the investigation.
Our advice is that where social housing providers undertake Type 4 Fire Risk Assessments, they should also review the building contracts and professional appointments relating to the buildings in question. This will help to identify if defects can be remedied under those contracts, or the cost of a remedial scheme recovered from the parties responsible. It is also recommended that social housing providers seek support from an independent fire safety expert who can advise on the nature and extent of any fire safety defect, and on what constitutes an effective remedial solution.
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