Failure to review ADB poses significant risk to property and life

Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report, published on 18th December 2017, highlighted the deep-seated and troubling failures in fire protection and safety in the built environment; adding to the existing pressure to review the already outdated Approved Document B (ADB) which is increasingly becoming outpaced by the innovation in today’s construction industry. So what should we expect when the full Hackitt report is published next month? The industry is crying out for a full review of the current Building Regulations and the Guidance, but will its wish be granted?

The last review of ADB was in 2006 with minor amendments in 2010 and 2013. A comprehensive review of ADB is now absolutely necessary, especially as Home Office figures indicate there have been 22,800 fires in industrial and commercial buildings (ICBs) in the past three years.

The impact of fires must be seen from different perspectives; not only from the threat to life but also from the threat to business, to the economy and to society. Many underestimate how long it will take for the fire brigade to arrive to tackle the fire; in this gap, fires in ICBs can quickly transform into disasters. A fire’s effect must be viewed as an interconnected web. For instance, fires affect business continuity, leading to employee job loss or relocation. Naturally, this has a negative impact on the wider function of local economies. Moreover, large plumes of smoke harm environmental health and threaten air quality. Fire’s effect must be recognised as widespread and multiple, as its adverse effects range from loss of life, to loss of business, to loss of jobs and environmental damage.

The ADB Guidance needs urgent revision because it must reflect current building materials, construction techniques and usage. As expressed by Dame Judith in her interim report, the Guidance must also be made clearer and easier to use. But the Regulations must also be changed so buildings are designed to be resilient to fire. Currently, the ADB Guidance remit is for buildings to be designed so that, in the event of a fire, all the occupants can evacuate a building safely. Under this system, only warehouses above 20,000 m2 require sprinkler protection – a figure well above that of most other countries – whilst industrial units such as factories have no such requirement whatsoever. Yet sprinklers control or even extinguish fires before the Fire and Rescue Service arrive; they prevent large fires. Their absence in so many ICBs explains why so many of these buildings are badly damaged or even destroyed when a fire starts. The Regulations and the Guidance are not designed to make the buildings themselves resilient to fire, therefore when a fire starts, occupants usually evacuate safely but the building too often burns.

In a perfect world there would be no outbreaks of fire, however in the society we live in fires happen. We should do all we can to minimise the number of fires whilst also implementing measures to control the spread of fire when it does break out. For this reason, ADB needs a comprehensive, root and branch review. It must be updated and designed to make buildings of the future more resilient to fire. Careful thought needs to be given to what should be added and amended in order for ADB to be fully applicable to today’s built environment; where it is completely in-sync with all the ambitious technologies and designs present in modern properties. Such a review should be carried out regularly, every three to five years, as the world does not stand still. We should never again find ourselves in a situation where critical guidance is effectively 12 years out of date.

Recent fires have catapulted these issues into the public domain, therefore a review of ADB requires urgent attention to safeguard lives and property. If the measures were already active, costs to life, property and economy would not be an issue. A more holistic approach to addressing fire safety needs to be taken in order to eradicate fire’s long-term and short-term impact on the economy and people’s livelihoods.