Nobody in the industry would disagree with the aspiration to prevent another Grenfell and to drive a change in culture on building safety. But safety starts with an understanding that buildings behave as complicated systems, not just layers of products. So, as the first Grenfell residents prepare to address the public inquiry this week, we support the Secretary of State’s call for reform.
The building industry should continually innovate to improve safety, to improve design and to improve sustainability. EPIC member products are selected by designers, architects and builders because they meet those requirements – but they continue to innovate. EPIC members make steel-faced insulated building panels. The products have a long and proven track record for speed of build, air-tightness and thermal performance, energy saving, and notably for fire performance too. Steel-faced building elements with PIR rigid thermal insulation cores have consistently demonstrated their ability to maintain their structural integrity and contain the spread of fire – not only in large-scale laboratory tests, but in multiple real-life fires. www.epic.uk.com/fire-performance/fire-case-studies/fire-research-case-studies/
“EPIC members have been working with contractors to deliver more joined-up on-site practice for many years, and we welcome the Government’s commitment to hastening improvement,” says EPIC general secretary, Chris Pateman. “Members will continue to work closely with government to professionalise and ensure the Secretary of State’s announcement is understood by all within the industry.”
Blanket-banning products has two unwelcome implications. Firstly, it risks complacency at the designer and installer level: the idea that if it is classed as ‘non-combustible’, nothing can go wrong.
Secondly, it stifles innovation at the manufacturer level because if you haven’t got a market, you have no incentive to improve. Mr Brokenshire has not opted just to proscribe decorative aluminium rainscreens of the type which failed so disastrously at Grenfell. By extending the ban to all products which can be categorised ‘combustible’ he is essentially precluding all modern building systems and dooming building designers to concrete, mineral wool and masonry.
Steel-faced PIR core panels are widely used in industrial and commercial new-build and refurbishment projects, as well as in hospitals, schools, prisons and shopping centres. Their high-quality finish, dense high performance rigid thermal insulation and factory-engineered consistency makes them a natural answer to the need for off-site techniques, energy efficiency, airtightness, water-tightness, long life performance and low maintenance.
High-performance thermosetting insulation cores mean the panels are typically twice as thermally efficient as glass-fibre or mineral wool alternatives. Which is why their use is so widespread in bringing existing commercial buildings up to government-recommended standards.
“The answer to complicated engineering questions about fire performance of materials in buildings is not to ban modern materials,” says Pateman. “The answer is to build the systems in large-scale test-rigs, expose them to significant fire loads in controlled conditions, and see how they perform. And then to ensure the people who are installing them on site are qualified, trained, accredited and responsible to deliver to specification.
“Thinking you can prevent another Grenfell by banning the use of a broad class of materials is a bit like thinking you can prevent another M5 pile-up by banning HGVs. It’s poor-quality policy-making, and we wonder if the Secretary of State has really thought through its implications.”
As highlighted in Dame Judith Hackett’s thorough investigation and well-informed conclusions, the way to really improve fire safety is to drive a change in culture: to make sure everyone in the chain is qualified to take legal responsibility for what they are designing, specifying, installing and maintaining. This announcement is just the first step to improvements in the industry which will only happen when government, manufacturers and installers all work together to understand these complex engineering problems.
EPIC is committed to working with the Government and stakeholders from the construction industry. It aims to help deliver a regulatory system that is fit for purpose in providing safe and sustainable buildings for people to live and work in.