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After Grenfell: Reducing Risk in Design

Following the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster, and the reported cost cutting and improper use of hazardous cladding, there have been several changes implemented to reduce risk in design. Since then, a conscious shift towards architects specifying materials over contractors has emerged, to minimize future problems.

It has since been identified that restricting combustible materials is vital to ensure that all buildings are safe and fit for the future. There have also been new regulations issued for all buildings above 18m. Yet there's still a long way to go with many buildings still not having sprinklers in place, we are getting far behind from Scotland and Wales with Scottish regulations also insisting there be a second means to escape. There has also been some controversy between RIBA and the Hackitt review as to what should be put in place for future buildings; especially high-rise buildings.

What we’ve learned about fire safety after Grenfell Tower

One of the major factors of Grenfell Tower was that there were no sprinklers in the building which would have otherwise stopped flames taking hold, with some arguing that it would have saved the tower; giving people 99% chance of survival (according to fire safety expert, Paul Atkins).

Prior to Grenfell, older buildings did not have to comply with the latest safety regulations, which is why the building was still able to have more than 250 residents with insufficient safety standards! It has now come to light that we must look to review older buildings and bring them up to date with safety precautions; one of those being sprinklers.

Another one of the issues of Grenfell Tower were the fire doors; although they stated to be able to hold back a fire for 30 minutes, they actually only withstood 15 minutes; meaning all the people that were told to stay inside sadly didn’t stand much chance – this needs to change. The building had a ‘stay put’ policy rather than an evacuation plan, which meant the fire alarm system that was in place was to inform the emergency services, instead of residents, after establishing whether the alarm was genuine or false.

One of the ways in which we can improve fire safety in buildings is by providing a good means of escape. There are many ways in which we can improve the warning and escape protocol in buildings.

As for the escape route there were a lot of issues there too. With only one staircase throughout the building there was only 1 means of escape for the 200+ residents of the building. This has caused a serious matter for concern but despite safety experts advising otherwise this still remains the minimum requirement for high rise buildings. There was also no natural light within the only corridor/stairway making it even more difficult for those who were trying to evacuate after some of the emergency lighting failed prior to the disaster. This could’ve easily been avoided however after the emergency lighting review in 2005 nothing was done. The stairway didn’t have an efficient smoke control system in place either which caused the stairway to quickly become clogged with smoke. Although the combustible cladding was the main issue for this incident after recent reviews it has become quite clear that this wasn’t the only problem and a lot of factors are to blame for such a disaster taking place.

RIBA say Hackett review doesn’t implement enough

Since the disaster the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) commissioned Building Research Establishment (BRE) to undertake an extensive cladding test programme which focussed on the fire safety of external cladding systems on high-rise, multiple occupancy residential buildings. The test programme has so far identified at least 228 buildings which do not meet the test criteria set out in BR 135; all of which were over 18 metres high and in Local Authority or Housing Association ownership in England. The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) have since submitted their review and recommendations in response to the Hackitt Review towards the end of last year.

Immediate Past President of RIBA and Chair of the RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety, Jane Duncan has said “I’m pleased that Dame Judith Hackitt recognizes the current regulatory system is not fit for purpose and that there is a lack clarity of roles and responsibilities in the construction industry.” However, it has since been said The RIBA would like to see:

  • An immediate prohibition on the use any combustible materials in the external wall construction of high-rise buildings
  • A greater role for sprinklers as an active life safety measure in residential buildings
  • Requirements for at least two staircases, offering alternative means of escape in high-rise residential buildings  

How to implement changes in future to reduce risk in design

It’s clear that a lot of changes need to be implemented to create safe environments for people to live in. One of the first steps to creating safer buildings is adding sprinklers; this will help to postpone future fires from spreading so quickly like what happened at Grenfell Tower. It’s also important that we look at uses of materials such as fire doors; especially in buildings where there is a ‘stay put policy’ in order to provide fire fighters enough time to find and rescue people who are stuck in their homes when such incidents occur.

Another factor we need to look at changing is escape routes; gas, smoke and toxic fumes are some of the main factors of danger in house fires. In order to prevent this we need to ensure that there are more than 1 escape route (as advised by RIBA). All escape routes should have adequate lighting and sprinklers to provide a rescue route which aids the fire services & residents during emergencies. One of the ways we can create safer corridors is by implementing SHEV’s (smoke heat exhaust ventilator). SHEV’s allow natural light in to the building as well as working as part of a smoke control system. Working alongside additional lighting and sprinklers this will provide a safe route which should be free from darkness and smoke. If such precautions are put in place for all future buildings this will allow an escape route should a ‘stay put’ policy fail.

It’s critical we learn from this disaster and work towards change.

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