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expert reaction to block of flats fire in Worcester Park, London

Reaction to a fire at a four story residential building in Worcester Park, London, in the early hours of Monday 9th September. 

 

Martin Kealy, Member of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, said:

“Looking at the pictures of the fire it is difficult to see how this construction could have been so comprehensively destroyed.  External walls have been required to resist the spread of fire for many years, and compartments to withstand fire for decades.  But this fire also throws recent proposed changes to Building Regulations into sharp focus.

“Just last Thursday the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHLGC) issued a further consultation on fitting sprinklers in higher rise residential buildings.  They propose to require installation of sprinklers in all apartment blocks over 18m in height.

“The rationale for 18m is to align with the new Building Regulation 7(2), introduced in November 2018 to implement the “ban on combustible cladding”.  This bans any combustible material from external walls of residential buildings over 18m in height.  So to require sprinklers above that height is consistent with that requirement.

“But fire is no respecter of height limits.  The Worcester Park fire clearly shows why the current consultation is so important, to allow all interested parties to consider whether 18m is low enough. The consultation suggests that the lower option is 11m, but even that might not have covered the Worcester Park building.  We need to ask why it is that in North America the National Fire Protection Association NFPA 5000 requires sprinklers in all apartment blocks.  Is it time to reconsider the UK approach to sprinklers?

“The fire also reminds us of the MHCLG Building Control Circular issued on 1st July 2019, which reminds Building Control bodies of the need to meet requirement B4, which addresses external spread of fire, in relation to “combustible materials within or attached to the external walls of buildings of any height.”

 

Dr Joanna Cox, Head of Policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said:

“Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with the families who have today lost their homes.  This fire highlights why the Government’s proposed building safety reforms need to go beyond the initial recommendation of only applying to buildings over 18 meters (six storeys). Devastating fires can also happen in multiply occupied building of a lower height which has unfortunately happened in this case.

“What we learned from Grenfell, and without knowing the specific cause of this fire, is that there still needs to be better systems and processes for managing the multiple factors that come together to cause devastating fires of this kind. This includes competency, quality of building work, accountability and building and systems regulation. There is still insufficient focus on delivering the best quality residential high-rises and buildings. In order to ensure residents feel and are safe, this urgently needs to change.”                       

 

Prof Robert Lowe, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Resilience and the Built Environment at the UCL Energy Institute, said:

“Fires such as the one at Worcester Park will continue to happen until the UK addresses the systemic dysfunctionality of Building Regulations and Building Control.

“Fire Safety, along with a long list of other critical aspects of building performance, is ensured through Building Regulations.  These are maintained, updated and published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.  Their application is overseen by Building Control Bodies, which include Local Authority Building Control Departments and private Approved Inspectors.

“There has been a succession of fires in tall buildings over the last thirty years.  Common factors in these fires include complexity of Building Regulations underpinned by over-emphasis on the principle of performance-based regulation, underfunding of Building Control, and lack of willingness to prosecute companies that do not comply with regulations.  There is evidence that competition between Building Control Bodies supports a race to the bottom. All of this has taken place against the background of deep-seated political opposition to the concept of regulation, going back to the late 1970s.

“Dysfunctionality of Building Regulations and Building Control interacts with the heavy reliance on sub-contracting within the construction industry.  This fragments the industry, diffuses responsibility for all aspects of building design, construction and commissioning, and has allowed construction companies to contract out technical functions and expertise.

“All of this affects aspects of building performance other than fire safety, including energy performance.”

 

Dr Rory Hadden, Rushbrook Senior Lecturer in Fire Investigation at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“This is clearly a very significant fire and my thoughts are with the residents and emergency responders. These large-scale incidents require thorough and detailed investigation which will take some time. Therefore it is not reasonable to draw conclusions at this time. 

“My view is that the primary focus of the investigation will be why and how the fire spread through the whole building. In general buildings are designed to contain the fire to the compartment of origin which clearly did not happen in this case. I expect the investigation will explore the materials present on the outside of the building as well as the internal fire safety measures. It is essential that a thorough investigation is undertaken so that we can learn from these incidents and take steps to make sure that they cannot happen again.”

 

Declared interests

None received. 

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