Building Safety Act signals critical period of planning for construction industry

The government’s Building Safety Bill as received Royal Assent in April, completing all the parliamentary stages in both Houses to become an Act of Parliament. The Building Safety Act includes a range of measures which, according to the government, are expected to take 12- 18 months to introduce. For the construction industry, that period will be critical in assessing the implications and planning accordingly.

The immediate lesson of Grenfell was an urgent need for a comprehensive overhaul of building safety.  In the five years since, progress towards that goal has been sluggish, hampered by a protracted dispute between leaseholders, building owners and developers over who pays the cost of improvements. Leaseholders have been trapped in buildings with unsafe cladding and facing massive costs to fix the problem as developers refuse to foot the bill.  It laid bare the need to apply impetus by allocating clear responsibilities and providing the necessary incentives to ensure they are met.

Having been criticised for failing to protect leaseholders, the government signalled a significant change in its stance earlier this year when the then Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, outlined a raft of amendments to the Building Safety Bill which will require developers, manufacturers and building owners to pay for the £4 billion estimated remaining cost of replacing dangerous cladding on buildings.

Mr Gove stated: “It is time to bring this scandal to an end, protect leaseholders and see the industry work together to deliver a solution. We cannot allow those who do not take building safety seriously to build homes in the future, and for those not willing to play their part they must face consequences. We will take action to keep homes safe and to protect existing leaseholders from paying the price for bad development.”

Those actions are contained within the Building Safety Act, giving residents more power to hold builders and developers to account and toughen sanctions against those who compromise safety. A new Building Safety Regulator will be at the heart of the reforms, overseeing the “safety and performance of all buildings” and implementing the new, more stringent regulatory regime for higher-risk buildings. The regulator will also assist and encourage competence among the built environment industry, and registered building inspectors.

Stricter oversight is likely to have an effect throughout the construction supply chain. The government has stated that it “will place legal responsibilities on those who commission building work, participate in the design and construction process and those who are responsible for managing structural and fire safety in higher-risk buildings when they are occupied. These people will be called dutyholders during design and construction, and Accountable Persons when the building is occupied.”

Many organisations and individuals in the construction and property sectors will be wary of finding themselves charged with an unwitting failure to meet those responsibilities when the legislation comes into effect. Prior to Grenfell, developers across the UK installed ACM cladding on the basis that it met regulations. Without knowledge or understanding of the increased risk of using that material, they made their decision according to the standards set out in law at the time. Those developers are now paying the cost of rectifying their decision in line with a subsequent change in laws.  With regulations set to be further tightened and more robustly enforced as part of the Building Safety Act, many developers will now be mindful that decisions they make in 2022 could be subject to remediation in the years ahead as the new regulatory landscape takes shape.

In the past five years, the pace of change has already exposed regulatory inconsistencies which are ripe for further scrutiny. Advances in construction technology have made some regulations appear outdated – notably in relation to the design of external walls, the area of risk which was central to Grenfell.

Current law requires breather membranes and vapour control layers to have a minimum Euroclass B fire safety rating compared to a Euroclass A rating required for other wall elements such as cladding. The legislation was drafted in the year that followed Grenfell, when the textile technology had not developed to the extent that they could provide a Euroclass A rating while still performing vital functions such as breathability and waterproofing to an adequate level. As a result, breather membranes and vapour control layers were made exempt from Euroclass A.

The legislation came into effect in December 2018. Since then, advances in product development have led to the emergence of breather membranes and vapour control layers which are Euroclass A rated without compromising the other key attributes. For example, ITP’s product portfolio includes the Safe One breather membrane, combing a Euroclass A2-s1,d0 rating with a W1 rating for water tightness, and our latest FlameOut Block  Class A vapour control layer which also offers a A2-s1,d0 rating. With advanced systems like these, there is no reason not to apply the same levels of fire safety throughout the external envelope and remove the exemption which applies to these elements.

The complicated and changeable nature of fire safety regulation is a huge challenge for developers, building owners, facilities managers and specifiers. To deliver a reliable and robust fire safety concept, it is vital that these parties have an understanding of how design and manufacture will affect performance once installed. To enable that understanding, they need the whole supply chain to be open and transparent. However, relying on good faith is not a failsafe solution: more robust frameworks should be introduced for the procurement of building products, ensuring that every decision is made with knowledge of best practice, the relevant certification and the best available options to optimise long-term fire protection.

The same knowledge is essential for installers. A recent report prepared by members of Working Group 2, set up as part of the post-Grenfell Competence Steering Group, set out the current state of competence arrangements for those installing products and systems in buildings. It considered the changes needed to create competence frameworks that comply with the Competence Steering Group’s recommendations in Setting the Bar, which was published in 2020 to outline how industry must improve the competence of those procuring, designing, constructing, inspecting, assessing, managing, installing and maintaining higher risk residential buildings.

The Working Group 2 report recognises that good practice exists in each sector, but elements of each sectors’ arrangements have been red rated, meaning significant work is required to meet the requirements of Setting the Bar.  As part of its recommendations, the Working Group 2 will facilitate constructive dialogue between the Fire Stopping Specialist (FSS) sector group and other relevant installer sector groups to ensure a sufficiently consistent approach to fire stopping competence, whether undertaken by specialists or non-specialists. Work has already begun to improve the overall quality of third-party certification of companies in the sector.

Such measures will take time to complete. In the meantime, we have a collective responsibility to promote and encourage awareness, understanding and culture change across the sector. There are no shortcuts on the roadmap to fire safety – navigating its complexities requires rigorous attention to detail. Every decision made in the supply chain should be driven by that principle.

For more advice on fire safety in construction, please contact our team of experts on 01347 825200 or info@itpltd.com.