Glasgow School of Art fire: Are we learning from our mistakes?

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Senior consultant for international codes and standards, FM Global

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With more than 20 years’ of risk management experience, Tom is responsible for working with a variety of agencies, national bodies and associations to influence national codes and standards that relate to loss prevention in Europe. Prior to his current appointment as Senior Consultant, International Codes and Standards for FM Global, Tom served in a variety of engineering and engineering management roles across the UK, as well as acting as an engineering manager in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Southern Africa and the Middle East.
August 10, 2018


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(Glasgow School of Art after the 2014 fire but before the 2018 blaze (Image used under GNU Free Documentation Licence))

In 1968, Glasgow earned the moniker of ‘Tinderbox City’.

Fifty years on, that reputation may unfortunately be returning, with Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow having witnessed two large fires in March and June of this year. The latter saw, for the second time in four years, Glasgow School of Art (GSOA) suffer a devastating fire with an estimated £100 million bill to restore it.

These fires are a stark reminder that fire is destructive and remains a severe threat to property today. The GSOA fire also highlights that fire can strike at any point and will not wait for a building to be ready.

The reality is that a fire can occur at any stage whether it is during the process of installing fire protection measures, like GSOA, or 44 years after the building was first completed and recently refurbished, as seen at Grenfell Tower in London.

Unfortunately, the contributory factors to these fires are all too familiar – combustible materials, combined with a lack of adequate fire protection. The GSOA fire has also proved that lightning, unfortunately, does strike twice.

Is the minimum of meeting building regulations enough?

With an investigation into the GSOA fire currently underway, the media are questioning the actions of several stakeholders including the contractor, property owner and operator. The risk of fire was understood by the property owner following the previous fire and as such fire protection systems were due to be installed.

The GSOA actually went beyond what they were legally obliged to do

If the installation of temporary fire protection systems during the construction phase had been prioritised, the outcome at the GSOA could have been very different.

What is really staggering is that despite the outrage, the GSOA were going beyond what they were legally obliged to do. They were pursuing good practice in terms of resilience and trying to protect the refurbished building by fitting active fire protection.

Following the minimum standard would not guide them to install fire protection – as many do across the UK without appreciating the consequences.

Confusing the outcomes of regulations

Recent events have shown that the current English building regulations may be clear, but unfortunately, the guidance is not. This results in a bizarre situation with teams believing they have technically met the minimum guidance without achieving the intention of regulation.

The confusion around building regulations and guidance has allowed a ‘culture of compliance’ to flourish, according to the Dame Judith Hackitt review. Contractors believe they have abided by technical guidance to regulations put forward by the government and tenants have assumed they are adequately protected.

As Dame Judith points out unless we take a more system-based approach with clear accountability and understanding of intended outcomes, then property across the UK will remain at risk from the devastating damage fire can cause.

I would go further and ask property owners to consider the outcomes of following the minimums provided by building regulations. The GSOA example raises an important question as to whether the minimum is enough to achieve their objectives for their property.

Is there a perception-reality gap?

There’s a huge gulf between perception and reality when it comes to fire safety in the commercial sector. Research conducted by the Business Sprinkler Alliance with YouGov revealed that 69% of business owners surveyed thought that by following building regulations, they would adequately protect their business from a fire.

Businesses tend to underestimate the value of their property and overestimate their ability to recover from a serious event

Businesses also tend to underestimate the value of their property and overestimate their ability to recover from a serious event.

This gap in understanding can prevent people from asking important questions of their facilities and construction teams at the outset of a project to define their business resilience objects for a new building or extension. It can lead to decisions on resilience being assumed or lost among the competing voices of regulators, architects, contractors and suppliers – compounded by discussions about cost without a discussion about the wider impact and potential benefit.

Moving beyond regulation

At FM Global, we’re aware that building regulations define the minimum level of safety, and mere compliance isn’t enough to build resilience to a fire. To make a property more resilient, you must build on this current level of protection.

At FM Global, we’ve taken proactive steps to conduct research on all aspects of property protection from fire to flood to be able to understand how best to protect and advise our clients. However, the responsibility to ensure that buildings are not vulnerable to fire lies with all stakeholders of the built environment – from the government, to contractors, insurers and property owners.

Now is the time for us to join together as an industry and choose to be resilient.

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