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CROSS Safety Report

Serious inconsistencies when installing passive fire protection

Report ID: 1199 Published: 20 November 2023 Region: CROSS-UK


Overview

An onsite fire engineer, engaged on behalf of the end client during the construction of a new residential development, reports a significant amount of inadequately installed passive fire protection elements.

Key Learning Outcomes

For principal contractors and clients:

  • Ensure that fire protection work is carried out in accordance with the designed fire strategy
  • The engagement of specialist fire protection contractors is likely to be necessary for work recognised to be specifically related to fire protection
  • Other work, such as the fitting of door sets, may also be critical in terms of fire safety

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This report relates to a project involving the construction of a new residential development comprising numerous blocks of flats.

The reporter's role was to act as the onsite fire engineer engaged throughout the construction period for approximately two years. Their role was to ensure that the works carried out were consistent with the requirements agreed in the fire strategy and relevant standards, and that the quality of work satisfied the functional requirements of the Building Regulations.

The reporter suggests that the project faced numerous challenges where, in their view, unqualified contractors carried out the installation of life safety elements, resulting in potential risks to the future building occupiers as well as creating significant delays.

the contractors carrying out the works were not aware of the intended function of these details or systems and lacked the necessary, demonstrable competence

Whilst undertaking site visits at different phases of the construction, the reporter identified a significant amount of inadequately installed elements of passive fire protection. Specialist fire stopping installers had been appointed to the project; however, in the opinion of the reporter, it soon became clear that the installation of certain details was carried out by various parties who did not have any specific qualifications nor could correctly record and document the executed works. This meant they failed to follow the principles of the golden thread, which the client intended to adopt. Furthermore, the contractors carrying out the works were not aware of the intended function of these details or systems and lacked the necessary, demonstrable competence.

Most fire stopping details, such as pattresses and proprietary seals, were installed by third party accredited, fire stopping installers; these details were generally of an acceptable standard.

However, other fire stopping details, for example within plasterboard partitions, were installed by dry lining operatives with no appropriate accreditation or expertise in fire stopping. Some of the reporter's key findings are summarised below:

  • Inadequate products were used which would not perform correctly in the installed arrangement
  • Products from different manufacturers were inappropriately mixed with each other, thus not meeting any standard (tested and certified) installation detail
  • Products that may have been appropriate were installed incorrectly, essentially creating a breach in the fire resisting element
  • Fire protection elements such as intumescent putty pads behind electrical sockets, smoke seals of fire doors along the escape routes, and linear joint seals, were found to be missing altogether
  • Fire resisting door sets were inadequately installed, either by not adopting a specific detail or because installation was based on architectural drawings which were subject to significant alterations from the tested detail without any supporting information
  • Fire dampers were not appropriately installed and gaps were observed around the items
  • Plasterboard partitions did not include an adequate head detail to accommodate any slab deflections during a fire
  • Other non standard details were used without documented evidence of their suitability

The construction included numerous service penetrations, or openings through fire resisting partitions, which were inadequately sealed, thus creating breaches through various fire resisting elements. These included compartment walls between flats, protected corridors, and protected entrance halls.

eventually, the reporter advised the client not to proceed with the handover of the building until all issues had been resolved

The reporter goes on to explain that at various stages of the process, different stakeholders and technical specialists were involved in discussions to try and justify the inappropriate works that had already been completed. However, the reporter asserts that the arguments were purely qualitative and product manufacturers were unwilling to provide any sort of guarantee for non-standard details retrospectively to reflect the works onsite. This resulted in difficult conversations and eventually, the reporter advised the client not to proceed with the handover of the building until all issues had been resolved.

In principle, it would be expected that any fire stopping or passive fire protection works are carried out by competent professionals. This is similar to the expectation that masonry partitions would be constructed by bricklayers, building services would be installed by mechanical or electrical engineers. Whilst it is not a legal requirement for third party accredited installers to carry out these works, there is an obligation that the systems function as intended and are suitable from a workmanship perspective, as indicated in Regulation 7 of the Building Regulations.

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The relevant extract from Regulation 7 of the Building Regulations

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the construction industry is undergoing a significant culture change, where more emphasis is placed on life safety and ensuring that buildings are safe to be occupied. In the reporter's opinion, there is still a long way to go. There is a need for everyone involved in the construction industry to raise the bar and not accept compromises on safety aspects that can have a significant impact in the long term.

It is important that people are accountable for their work and a concise record is maintained of all life safety elements, not only to assure the end client of the safe condition of the building, but also to ensure the building can be appropriately maintained throughout its lifetime.

Ensuring continuity in the design process by following the principles of the golden thread of information is crucial. It is also key that fire engineers are involved throughout all design and construction stages up to handover to mitigate risks and ensure that the fire safety principles are correctly adopted. The importance of third party accreditation, quality assurance and accurately recording evidence should also be emphasised. These provide assurance of the competence and quality of workmanship of contractors carrying out the works.

Expert Panel Comments

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An Expert Panel comment on the reports we receive. They use their experience to help you understand what can be learned from the reports. If you would like to know more, please visit the CROSS-AUS Expert Panel page.

The issues discussed in this report are, sadly, still typical of the industry, and certainly what we continue to experience.

While it is encouraging that qualified (competent) subcontractors were used in some areas in the project described, it clearly was not enough. There is a movement towards ensuring the competency of installers, using correct products, with third-party assurance, but this is still a work in progress.

It is felt that the necessary culture change is not happening quickly enough at the installer level.

It is still the responsibility of those carrying out building work to ensure that the construction meets the requirements of the Building Regulations. Thus, they need to appoint competent people and utilise appropriate products to achieve that aim. Moreover, as stated in this report, when third party accredited installers are used, the quality of the installation is as expected. This point reaffirms the recommendation stated in Approved Document B:

"Third party schemes of certification and accreditation of installers can provide confidence that the required level of performance for a system, product, component or structure can be achieved. Building control bodies may accept certification under such schemes as evidence of compliance with a relevant standard. However, a building control body should establish before the start of the building work that a scheme is adequate for the purposes of the Building Regulations. For further information about third party certification schemes and competent person schemes, see Chapter 5 in Volume 1 and Chapter C in Volume 2 of the Manual to the Building Regulations."

The fire safety sector has an enormous challenge in improving the level of understanding throughout construction companies and by individual operatives

CROSS has received a significant number of reports about issues with passive fire protection. When these come to light, there is often a significant impact on occupiers and other stakeholders, including financial misery and stress.

The fire safety sector has an enormous challenge in improving the level of understanding throughout construction companies and by individual operatives, of the seemingly trivial details, which if installed incorrectly, potentially undermine the entire fire performance of the structure. We cannot expect individuals or construction companies to close this gap themselves; such an approach is expecting individuals to know what they don't know. The fire industry needs to develop a structured process for educating the construction industry as effectively as it discusses its failings amongst itself.

Another aspect worthy of note is the apparently significant number of fire engineering judgments used to justify otherwise unsubstantiated installations.  It is felt that often such submissions are little more than opinions, made with neither the necessary competency nor an established basis upon which to justify an acceptable technical assessment. The Passive Fire Protection Forum's Guide to Undertaking Technical Assessments of Fire Performance of Construction Products Based on Fire Test Evidence, 2021 is a useful reference.

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