New fire regulations and standards are not just about cladding and high rise

With so much focus on high-rise residential buildings and those with cladding over the past few years, it’s easy to overlook the fact that many residential buildings fit into neither of these categories, but are still impacted by the changes that have been made to fire regulations, fire system specifications and evacuation best practice since 2017.

One key example is older residential blocks, many dating from the Victorian period to the 1930s, which are still commonly found in cities like London and Edinburgh. Although these blocks may not be at risk from defective cladding, and they are usually no higher than five or six floors, they do present their own unique challenges in terms of fire safety and evacuation, as well as the installation of the fire system itself.

Unique Challenges

Modern blocks of self-contained flats, with all necessary amenities incorporated at the design stage, were an invention of Victorian urban planners, who saw the advantages they could bring in terms of offering high-density housing, without the disadvantages of the disease-ridden slum housing they often replace. While the Victorians were no strangers to fireproofing of their industrial buildings with the use of concrete floors and steel doors to prevent the spread of fire, such measures were the exception, rather than the rule, in residential blocks.

Although many of these blocks have long been demolished in the name of progress, thousands still remain and while the design may differ, from the London mansion block to the traditional Scottish tenement, the basic format of a communal stairway with flats leading off it does not differ dramatically across the UK. This creates unique challenges for fire safety, evacuation and firefighting that were not always effectively addressed by regulation or technology in the past.

Although the focus since Grenfell has very much been on post-war residential buildings, especially those with cladding, these older blocks are not immune from fire safety issues. The specific challenges and potential flaws of their design may differ, but they share many of the same issues with their post-war counterparts, such as a single point of exit, and still require effective fire systems and evacuation procedures. This means that, post-Grenfell, changes have been introduced for the these buildings, as well as the more high-profile high-rise buildings.

Changing Standards

Before Grenfell, the general recommendation was that older blocks with effective compartmentation between flats did not normally require a full building-wide fire system and, even where they were installed, it was usually limited to communal areas. Where systems were installed, it was usually a simple network of individual devices, with no central panel. In fact, the Local Government Association recommended that “Communal fire alarm systems should not be installed unless it can be demonstrated that there is no other practicable way of ensuring an adequate level of safety.”

Of course, this did not apply to all blocks, as they did not all have compartmentation between flats, which also nullifies the ‘stay put’ approach to evacuation, but since Grenfell the entire approach has changed. It is now recognised that all residential blocks over 4 storeys should have a Grade A fire system covering both communal areas and residential units. The precise nature of this system should be based on a professional fire risk assessment, but generally it should comprise separate detectors, sounders and central control and indicating equipment, with a backup power supply that conforms to EN54.

Many of these buildings housing older people or those in need of supported living and, since 2019, under BS5839 Part 6, the standard of protection in sheltered housing flats has been increased from Category LD2 to Category LD1, positioning them as a higher potential risk due to potential complications with evacuation. To meet LD1 requirements, the installation of a fire detection system is required throughout the premises, including all rooms (and circulation areas that form part of the escape routes) except toilets, bathrooms and shower rooms.

Wireless can be particularly useful in achieving a rapid solution for all residential buildings, and sheltered accommodation or care homes in particular, as it allows speedy installation with minimal time on site and negligible contact with residents, as well as limiting the need to install cabling that then requires making good. It can be used to either install a full new system, where one did not previously exist, or to extend an existing wired system from communal areas into residential units with minimal upheaval and fuss.

Making It Happen

With older buildings bringing their own unique challenges, the British Standard Institution suggested in its 2020 Housing Code of Practice that ‘specialists with experience only in the design of new buildings might not possess an appreciation of standards against which older buildings were designed and the possible continued acceptability of such standards’. This was a welcome recognition not only that older buildings require a specialist skillset, but also that they may have design features or construction methods that can assist with the application of modern fire systems and regulations, as well as hindering them.

There is also a recognition that simply meeting the basic requirements for a fire system and measures to contain a fire may not be enough. For example, a fire door is an excellent tool in preventing the rapid spread of fires from room to room, but if the ceiling is lath and plaster it’s only going to have a very limited effect in preventing the transition of the blaze to the rest of the building. Fireproof ceiling boards are a desirable feature, not a legal necessity. Therefore, the fire system should form only one part of a much wider appraisal of the building’s construction, usage and layout, with improvements recommended where necessary.

In buildings that were never designed to accommodate modern cabling and infrastructure, installing new fire systems can be tricky, which is why a wireless fire system is likely to represent the optimum solution, reducing the install time, the physical impact on the building and minimising contact with residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Less wiring also means less likelihood that compartmentation will be compromised.

Wireless is the Future of Fire Systems

Even before recent world events, bodies such as the UK’s FIA (Best Practice Guide to Fire Safety) had acknowledged the value of wireless technology to address some of the key challenges we are facing in all types of residential building. With less time needed to install or update each system, it’s possible to deliver improvements quickly and efficiently in older residential buildings, with short lead-in time, less manpower and less complexity.

Unlike some new technologies, always waiting for widespread adoption and acceptance in the industry, wireless fire systems are already mainstream and have been for many years. They were already becoming a default choice to address the challenges we faced post-Grenfell and now, with the current pandemic situation forcing fire installers and their teams to limit the time they spend on site and in contact with building users, the adoption of wireless in older residential blocks is only going to accelerate.

Contact us for an advice on your fire system.

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