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CROSS Safety Report

Student accommodation occupied before critical safety features commissioned

Report ID: 1214 Published: 20 May 2024 Region: CROSS-UK


Overview

Newly built student accommodation was occupied before critical safety features were commissioned, based on a letter of comfort from the building control body. 

A fire safety audit identified numerous fire safety failures and urgent enforcement action had to be taken by the regulator. 

Key Learning Outcomes

For student accommodation providers/developers:

  • Given the desire to occupy student accommodation at a specific time of the year, it is important to ensure construction programmes are realistic to avoid partial occupation and/or occupation prior to the building being finished

For construction contractors:

  • It is not acceptable to list major unfinished aspects of construction as ‘snagging’ items in order to facilitate occupation

For Responsible and Accountable Persons:

  • Responsible and Accountable Persons should understand that, as soon as a building is occupied, fire safety failures may become life safety issues, and therefore immediately enforceable. These may result in prosecution if serious failings are found

Full Report

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This report from a fire and rescue Service (FRS) protection team, relates to a new student accommodation building. 

The fire strategy, which in the reporter's view appeared to follow performance-based fire engineering, had received building regulations approval via Approved Inspectors (AI). Comments at the building control consultation stages by the FRS were not taken into account by the design team during the qualitative design review stage (QDR). This, in the opinion of the reporter, resulted in multiple fire safety issues when the building became occupied.

The RP interpreted this document as a partial approval and deemed it appropriate to occupy the buildings whilst there were still many safety features uncommissioned or under construction

The Approved Inspectors had issued a letter of comfort.  The reporter describes this letter as an unofficial approval document provided to the Responsible Person (RP) to highlight the additional work required before occupation. The RP interpreted this document as a partial approval and deemed it appropriate to occupy the buildings at the beginning of the term whilst there were still many safety features uncommissioned or under construction. 

Issues identified by the reporter included;

  • Incomplete fire stopping and fire compartmentation, including missing fire resisting doors leading to the possibility of unpredictable smoke spread throughout the building in the event of a fire
  • Life safety features such as uncommissioned or turned-off fire detection systems. Whole zones of fire detection were disabled and not switched back on when work was complete, and contractors left the site
  • Lack of external hard standing for firefighting measures
  • External escape routes that passed through construction sites
  • Firefighting lifts that were unavailable for use in the event of a fire

Once the FRS became aware of the occupation, several urgent interventions were undertaken by the protection team. These included prohibition and enforcement notices, and meetings with the contractor, AI and other site representatives to agree on immediate action to make occupants safe.

It was not until several months later that a final certificate was issued and a satisfactory fire safety audit outcome was received from the FRS.

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-US Expert Panel page.

Rush to occupy

This building being occupied too early, while safety critical works were still to be completed, put the residents at an unacceptable level of risk. 

It is common for contractors to ask for (or even demand) letters of comfort or practical completion certificates from building control. Neither have legal status and, sometimes, the only purpose of them is to allow the contractor to be paid under their contract, to which building control is not party. These contractors seem to not understand that it is their responsibility to comply with building regulations.

In addition, it appears there was commercial pressure to occupy the premises at the beginning of term. Whatever the motivation behind the partial occupation this chain of events produced a building that:

  • Did not comply with building regulations
  • Did not have a suitable and sufficient Fire Risk Assessment
  • Put relevant persons at risk of death or serious injury

These events also exposed the Responsible Person to the risk of prosecution for these failings. This Report indicates that the journey to raising standards across the industry is going to be longer than initially thought. Alongside regulations, regulators and enforcement, we need considerable education of those within the industry to deliver the required outcomes as well as those commissioning such developments, such that the former understand the standards to which they are expected to perform, and the latter understand what performance they should be demanding.

Failure in the consultation process 

It appears that the events leading to inappropriate occupation were not entirely the AI's fault, but rather the RP's for going ahead and occupying before sign off. The consultation process however is a vital factor. The AI and the FRS do not appear to have agreed on aspects of the scheme during the initial building control consultation process.

Building Regulations and Fire Safety Procedural Guidance offers advice for consultations. This guidance highlights the importance of facilitating an effective consultation process and encourages a consensus reaching process on the outcome of the scheme.

Building Regulations

With regards to legislation, regulation 16 of the Building (Approved Inspectors etc.) Regulations 2010 (as amended) applies.

This section of regulation was amended on October 1st 2023 to add more detail referencing the notification to building control bodies for occupation before completion. In the case of this Report, the earlier regulations from June 2018 applied. The new relevant section, S16(5)(5) says: 'Where a building is being erected to which the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies or will apply after the completion of the work, and that building (or any part of it) is to be occupied before completion, the person carrying out that work shall give the local authority at least five days notice before the building or any part of it is occupied.'

Whichever amendment of the regulations is applicable, the Responsible Person was obligated to inform the building control body of the intention to occupy. This would have allowed for a pre occupation survey and early consultation with the FRS before persons were put at risk. 

From April 6th 2024, any Building Control Body intending to carry out regulated building control activities in England or Wales, which are assessing plans, inspections and/or giving advice to building control bodies that carry out regulated functions must be registered as a building inspector with the BSR. The BSR code of conduct and complaints procedures will then apply.

In scope premises and future compliance 

This was a systemic failure at multiple levels by the contractor, the RP and to some extent the AI. Hopefully, the new Building Safety Regulator (BSR) will prevent this happening for buildings in scope and persons subsequently being put at risk. In the case of this Report, gateway 3 would have acted as the final checkpoint, the decisive stop/go point before asset owners could start moving residents in.

Furthermore, the Expert Panel suggest that, if these risks were discovered now in an in scope premises, a mandatory occurrence report for both the occupation and the construction phase may be required. 

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