Aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding – which covered Grenfell – is just one of many high-risk concerns that residents, freeholders and managing agents should be aware of. But the narrow focus on this type of cladding has distracted the size of the issue.
As consultants specialising in the area of façade combustibility, the industry often finds a lack of information available to help people understand their buildings’ external fire risk or its compliance with legislation.
How do I know if my façade is flammable?
Meeting legislation is not the same as being risk free when it comes to fire. The combustibility of cladding is rated on the Euro Class scale; where ‘Class B’ is now becoming restricted. Euro Class B rated materials, such as ACM, were previously described as having “limited” combustibility.
More combustible Euro Class C-E materials, such as High Pressure Laminate cladding, are extremely common, especially on high-rise buildings throughout the UK, and hold an even greater fire safety risk in many cases. Yet for the most part, they have not been addressed as the main area of focus has been on ACM.
Other products often fly under the radar as they look visually different to cladding. Such an example is expanded polystyrene render (EPS), which is an extremely common material due to its high insulation rating and relatively inexpensive cost.
However, polystyrene is extremely flammable and even fire-retardant EPS render is still only rated at Euro Class E: i.e. very combustible.
It is important to understand the risks associated with your cladding and what the ratings of material mean. Thousands of UK residents are still at the mercy of combustible façade elements, often resulting in an inability to sell their properties.
Is it just about cladding?
The level of this risk depends on, and could be exacerbated by, a number of factors. For example, the type and combustibility of insulation used and the compartmentation of areas behind the cladding.
Large cavities behind the cladding and ineffective fire barriers can allow for trapped fire to spread quickly and increase the scale of the incident.
In buildings with effective fire barriers, the ‘stay-put’ fire evacuation method works as the fire is contained to the immediate area for a longer time to protect other areas while the fire service tackles the blaze.
Why are nearly 500 buildings left unsafe?
The new government legislation will not cover current buildings, only new-builds. We are struggling to understand why the safety of existing residents has not been made of paramount importance.
What isn’t covered in the new legislation?
The new legislation will be enforced for certain new buildings over 18 metres in height. Hotels and offices are exempt on the basis that they have a different evacuation strategy.
We do not feel that safety should be compromised due to a building’s height. Five storey blocks of flats are an example, these are likely to be just below 18 metres. Considering the speed at which the Grenfell blaze spread, a fire could reach the top of the building in less than four minutes.
What actions should leaseholders, freeholders and managing agents take?
For freeholders and managing agents, it is crucial to understand the risks and act upon them. Lack of knowledge does not negate liability.
For leaseholders, the cost to replace the cladding could directly affect you. Residents such as those in Sesame Apartments, Battersea, are facing remedial costs of £40,000 per flat. Not replacing combustible cladding also invites additional difficulties relating to insurance and property sales.
Moving forward, there must be transparency in the cost of any remedial works and assurance that such work will be carried out to the correct and safe standard.
If you are unsure of your building’s compliance or safety, we are always happy to discuss and provide impartial, expert advice.
Dorian Lawrence is managing director at Façade Remedial Consultants