Nearly eighteen months after the Grenfell Tower fire, the government has laid down regulations in parliament to help prevent another such event from happening.
The building regulations ban the use of combustible materials in the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres high and will come into effect on 21 December. The government is also giving support to local authorities to carry out emergency work to remove and replace unsafe aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding.
The Grenfell Tower fire claimed 72 lives on 14 June 2017, with flammable cladding blamed for the rapid spreading of the blaze.
What the new building regulations ban
The ban means combustible materials will not be permitted on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres and those currently under construction. The new building regulations will apply to all new residential housing, hospitals, residential care premises, boarding school dormitories and student accommodation – as long as they are over 18 metres high.
Certain combustible materials have also been banned from being used in renovations of existing buildings – including items like external cladding panels, insulation and materials in window spandrel panels and infill panels, although not window frames. The ban also applies to balconies, which are often made from combustible materials and have helped spread fires across walls in the past.
Other changes under the regulations
The policy also limits the use of timber materials, including engineered timber, particularly cross-laminated timber (CLT), in the external wall of buildings over 18 metres high. CLT has become increasingly popular with architects as a sustainable alternative to steel and concrete structural frameworks.
Local authorities are also being backed by the government – with financial support if necessary – to help them carry out emergency work on affected private residential buildings with unsafe ACM cladding. Costs will be recovered from building owners, allowing buildings to be permanently safe as quickly as possible. The government is already funding the replacements of unsafe ACM cladding on social sector buildings above 18 metres.
The ban will not be applied retrospectively to buildings where combustible materials have already been fitted and some combustible paints, wallpaper, laminated glass and seals will still be allowed as they aren’t available in non-combustible versions.
Reactions from within the construction industry
For those within the construction industry, reaction was mixed. RIBA – the Royal Institute of British Architects – also welcomed the legislation but wanted to see it go further. Jane Duncan, chair of RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety, says that “I am pleased that the government have taken recommendations on board and broadened the cladding ban to include other high-risk buildings such as hospitals, residential accommodation and care homes. We would like to see other high-risk buildings included, such as hotels and hostels, which are specifically exempted from the legislation.”
Jane believes that there is still more the government can do to make sure buildings are as safe as possible, saying “The government should address the RIBA’s recommendations on sprinklers, alarm systems and alternative means of escape in all residential high-rise buildings.”
What this means for those in the construction industry
The government has acknowledged in its impact assessment of the new policy that the inclusion of CLT within the scope of the ban “will likely slow down the use of engineered timber in future developments over the medium to long-term.” For Anthony, the situation is even worse - he believes it “could preclude the use of CLT from being used above six storeys.” The ‘sweet spot’ for CLT is on buildings more than five storeys high – below that height other materials make more financial sense. For Thistleton, this could potentially mean a complete collapse of CLT in this country – “we would go from a world leader to a backwater,” he says.
He also believes the changes will have a further negative impact on “the continued innovation and development of low carbon construction, and hence on the rate at which the construction industry can tackle climate change.”
The ban also means that all foam-based insulation, plastic fibre-based composites and timber-based walling and cladding materials will not be available for use on buildings less than 18 metres.
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