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Important new guidance on purpose-built block of flats

In the wake of the Lakanal House tragedy and other fires, it became apparent that there was a lack of specific guidance for purpose-built blocks of flats. Here Colin Todd, whose firm was commissioned to draft new guidance published last month, outlines some of its key provisions.

When the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (the Fire Safety Order) came into force in October 2006, it brought the common parts of blocks of flats within the scope of fire safety legislation for the first time. Domestic premises are, of course, outside the scope of the Order, which, therefore, does not apply to the individual flats themselves. Hence, in England and Wales, the common parts need a fire risk assessment and must comply with the requirements in respect of general fire precautions. (In the equivalent legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the common parts do constitute domestic premises and are, therefore, outside the scope of the legislation, other than in respect of maintenance requirements for equipment installed for use by firefighters. In Scotland, the different housing law and ownership arrangements in respect of common parts would have made application of fire safety legislation problematic.)

Block of flats
Specific guidance on purpose-built blocks of flats had been lacking…until now

In the early days of the Fire Safety Order, purpose-built blocks of flats were not high on the priorities of enforcing authorities; indeed, it might be said that, in some areas, these premises fell below the radar of inspection and enforcement, perhaps with some justification, given other priorities in respect of high risk premises. However, following the fire at Lakanal House in 2009 (and certain subsequent fires in blocks of flats), this changed dramatically, not least because of the unusual circumstances, including the fact that those who died were not, as is almost invariably the case in such fires, residents of the flat in which the fire started.

However, the application of the Fire Safety Order to blocks of flats has not been without significant problems. These have arisen, in part, from the lack of training and experience of both inspecting officers of enforcing authorities and fire risk assessors in dealing with fire precautions in blocks of flats. In particular, there has been a lack of understanding of the fundamental principles on which the design of fire precautions in blocks of flats are based. For example, for some of those involved, it sometimes seems counter-intuitive that a block of unlimited height may have only a single stairway and that, more generally, purpose-built blocks of flats do not normally need (nor should they have) a common fire alarm system.

Although serious injury or death of people beyond a flat of fire origin is extremely rare, inspections have brought to light shortcomings in fire precautions in some purpose-built blocks of flats. Indeed, in one extreme case, prohibition of the use of a block of flats has proved necessary. However, in the absence of suitable, detailed guidance, serious inconsistencies have arisen in the approach of both enforcing authorities and fire risk assessors, with, in some cases, wholly inappropriate requirements or recommendations, some of which have been withdrawn after challenge.

Existing standards and guidance
Approved Document B and BS 5588-1 (which is in the course of revision) provide guidance on the design of fire precautions in new blocks of flats (and new conversions). However, blocks of flats built prior to the 1990s would have been designed in accordance with earlier standards, such as CP3 Chapter IV Part 1. These blocks will not necessarily satisfy current standards, but it is often inappropriate to base the recommendations of a fire risk assessment on current standards, which are not retrospective. In some cases, however, compensatory measures may be appropriate but in others the risk assessment may determine that the existing standards are acceptable.

For existing purpose-built blocks, the only relevant guidance available to all parties has been the DCLG guide for sleeping accommodation, and the LACORS guide on fire safety provisions for certain types of existing housing. However, the DCLG guide covers many different types of disparate premises, so provides no detailed guidance on blocks of flats. Equally, the guide produced by LACORS (now Local Government Regulation) also covers many types of existing housing, and provides very little guidance that is specific to blocks of flats.

In response to concerns of landlords about how they can best develop an appropriate level of fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats, in January 2011, Local Government Improvement and Development (LGID) commissioned C S Todd & Associates (CSTA) to produce new national guidance, applicable to England, on fire precautions for purpose-built blocks of flats. This project was funded by DCLG and the Electrical Safety Council.

The new sector-led guide – published on the Local Government Group website last month – was developed by and for the housing sector and enforcing authorities to provide practical and detailed, risk-proportionate guidance that would complement all existing guidance, while constituting the most appropriate guide to use for purpose-built blocks of flats. An important aspect of the project was stakeholder involvement and feedback. Accordingly, LGID and CSTA worked alongside local authorities, private sector landlords and managing agents, housing and environmental health professionals and the fire and rescue service to produce the guidance.

The guide applies to purpose-built blocks of flats regardless of the tenure of the flats (i.e. whether owner-occupied, social housing or private rented sector). Moreover, the guide is not simply related to fire precautions within the common parts; guidance is given on fire safety within the flats themselves, provided they are occupied as single-family households. Although the guide, strictly speaking, applies only to England, it is likely to be relevant in Wales, where the same fire safety legislation applies. Also, although intended for existing premises that were originally constructed as purpose-built blocks of flats, much of the guidance will be applicable to conversions, provided that, at the time of conversion, the work was carried out in accordance with more modern Building Regulations. In particular, the guidance is likely to be relevant to conversions in which, as a result of compartmentation, a ‘stay-put’ policy is appropriate.

It is anticipated that the new guidance will be of great value to a wide readership, comprising:

  • Private sector housing providers (landlords)
  • Social housing providers
  • Residents’ management companies
  • ‘Right to Manage’ companies
  • Managing agents or facilities managers
  • Enforcement officers in local housing authorities (as the guide takes into account the requirements of the Housing Act 2004)
  • Enforcement officers of fire and rescue authorities
  • Consultants and contractors carrying out fire risk assessments

In particular, given that the document is intended to assist responsible persons to comply with both the Fire Safety Order and the Housing Act 2004, it is expected that enforcing authorities will have regard to this guide.

Fire risk assessments
A new concept within the guidance relates to fire risk assessments. Four different types of fire risk assessments are defined within the guide. These are known as Types 1-4.

A Type 1 fire risk assessment is the basic fire risk assessment required for the purpose of satisfying the Fire Safety Order. Unless there is reason to expect serious deficiencies in structural fire protection, a Type 1 inspection will normally be sufficient for most purpose-built blocks of flats. The inspection of the building is non-destructive, but even this basic fire risk assessment will include examination of at least a sample of flat entrance doors, since these are critical to protection of the common parts. Where there are demountable false ceilings in the common parts, it may be appropriate to lift a sample of readily accessible false ceiling tiles.

A Type 2 fire risk assessment is similar to a Type 1 fire risk assessment, in that it relates to the protection of the common parts, but the Type 2 inspection involves a degree of destructive exposure, usually necessitating the presence of a contractor to open up construction and make good after the inspection. The destructive inspection might include work within vacant flats to check the integrity of the separating construction that protects the common parts. This type of inspection would be carried out only if there is good reason to suspect serious structural deficiencies that could lead to spread of fire beyond the flat of fire origin.

A Type 3 fire risk assessment includes the work involved in a Type 1 fire risk assessment, and is also non-destructive, but goes beyond the scope of the Fire Safety Order by considering the fire precautions, such as means of escape and fire detection, within at least a sample of flats. This type of fire risk assessment will not be possible in the case of long-leasehold flats, as there is normally no right of access for freeholders.

Finally, a Type 4 fire risk assessment has the same scope of work as a Type 3 fire risk assessment, except that there is a degree of destructive inspection in both the common parts and the flats, carried out on a sampling basis. This is the most comprehensive fire risk assessment possible, but will only be appropriate in limited circumstances – such as when a new landlord takes over a block of flats in which the history of work carried out is unknown and there is reason to suspect serious risk to residents from both a fire in their own flats and a fire in neighbours’ flats.

Older block of flats
Blocks of flats built prior to the 1990s would have been designed to earlier standards

These defined fire risk assessments will assist responsible persons and others having control of blocks of flats to specify their requirements, thereby enabling ‘like-for-like’ tenders from fire risk assessment companies. On this note, the guide takes account of current concerns and activities relating to the competence of fire risk assessors. A complete appendix of the guide is devoted to the selection of a competent professional fire risk assessor.

Following a detailed introduction, the guide is divided into seven major parts, as follows:

Part A contains an analysis of fires in purpose-built blocks of flats, with the intention of putting risk from fire in these buildings into context. For example, it is noted that, while the number of deaths from fires in purpose-built blocks of flats is disproportionately high compared to the number of people in England who live in them, this is simply the result of a more or less equally disproportionate number of fires that occur in flats. The guide notes that there is no evidence from fire statistics to suggest that those living in purpose-built blocks of flats are at greater danger from fire, once it breaks out, than those that live in houses.

Part B outlines the general principles of fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats. This section explains the concept of the ‘stay put’ strategy, whereby, when there is a fire in one flat, other residents remain in their flats unless or until instructed to leave by the fire and rescue service. Wherever possible, it is this strategy that should be adopted in a block of flats.

Part C provides an overview of the legal framework relating to fire safety in blocks of flats. This section is intended to help landlords, and those managing fire safety, to understand their obligations under housing legislation as well as the Fire Safety Order. The very difficult issue in which, under a lease, landlords do not have control of certain fire safety measures in flats, is also addressed.

Part D outlines the principles and methodology of fire risk assessment. This part is supported by an appendix that sets out the steps in a fire risk assessment.

Part E addresses prevention of fire. This part is particularly aimed at landlords and those managing fire safety. A new concept introduced in this section relates to control over the fire load within common parts. Two possible strategies are defined, namely ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘managed use’.

Part F outlines benchmarks for fire protection measures, such as means of escape, compartmentation, smoke control and facilities for the fire and rescue service. Although the guidance discusses fire alarm systems, emergency escape lighting, fire extinguishing appliances and fire safety signs, the guide stresses that, with the exception of emergency escape lighting, such measures will not often be necessary.

The real priority, in terms of fire warning, is to ensure one or more working smoke alarms are provided in every flat. There is normally no need for a communal fire alarm system; indeed, such a system is normally undesirable, other than in unusual circumstances. Similarly, it is not normally considered necessary to provide fire extinguishers or hose reels in the common parts of blocks of flats. However, extinguishers are appropriate in plant rooms, common community facilities, staff rooms, workplaces, laundries, etc. It is also noted that flats with a single staircase will not usually require any fire exit signage.

High rise block of flats
The guide provides an overview of the legal framework for fire safety in blocks of flats

A major issue of inconsistency has, in the past, been the requirements that should be applied to flat entrance doors. As noted above, these are critical to protection of the common parts, but original flat entrance doors may lack intumescent strips and cold smoke seals. The guide makes it clear that the vital issue is to make sure flat entrance doors are effectively self-closing, but that upgrading existing doors simply because they are not fitted with intumescent strips or smoke seals, or fail to meet some other requirement of current standards, should not be made a generic recommendation applicable to all existing blocks of flats.

Part G deals with managing fire safety and is, again, aimed at landlords and others with the responsibility for ongoing control of fire safety. It will also be useful to those considering the standard of fire safety management when assessing risk.

The guide contains 13 appendices, an important one of which outlines the history of fire safety design standards for purpose-built blocks of flats. Before carrying out a fire risk assessment, the fire risk assessor should have a good understanding of the design principles adopted at the time of construction, and this appendix aims to help achieve this. In addition, seven appendices contain case studies, demonstrating the application of the principles set out in the guidance.

This new guidance is likely to have a great impact on all parties involved in fire safety of blocks of flats. It will, hopefully, not only achieve a more consistent approach by all stakeholders, but will enhance the safety of residents in this form of housing.

As the guide introduces some new concepts, C S Todd & Associates will be offering training seminars on the new guidance. Further information can be obtained by contacting the practice via email  or telephone 01252 792088. The guide itself can be downloaded from the Local Government Group website.

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