The building services industry must be prepared for a far more rigorous approach to fire safety testing in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.
The final Hackitt Review report makes the system of product testing a clear priority. It has also set out clear goals for improved fire safety through the long-awaited revisions to Part B of the Building Regulations.
Desktop studies not enough
Earlier in the review process, the Hackitt committee stated that it was alarmed by the fact that many products were marketed “with specification data presented in ways which can easily be misinterpreted”. It also pointed out that the widespread use of “desktop studies” to determine product suitability was undermining the quality of the specification process. It called for test results and the details of those who produce them to be made public and for testing to simulate ‘real life’ operating conditions.
While the practice of desk top studies seems likely to remain part of the compliance process; the fall-out from Grenfell will undoubtedly lead to demands from clients and building control officers (BCOs) for a more rigorous approach based much more closely on ‘real life’ operating conditions.
Comprehensive data is key
This will also feed into the serious issue of who takes responsibility for design and installation decisions, which was another key concern for the Hackitt committee. BCOs will be required to ensure adequate information is provided by project teams, which will depend on them having comprehensive testing data at their fingertips.
This also seeks to address the problem that contractors are often expected to work with only partially developed designs that have crucial technical details missing. Coupled with budget constraints this can seriously compromise the original design intent.
There is no doubt that testing via computer models has become more sophisticated in recent years, but there is still no substitute for using physical test facilities. The beauty of a physical test is that you can recreate actual conditions and then show the engineer or client just how their equipment will respond in reality.
Demonstrations and testing in high demand
Product test facilities are already seeing a marked shift in demand for more physical testing of products and fire safety installations like fire and smoke dampers; and manufacturers are receiving record numbers of enquiries for technical assistance with installation.
As Dame Judith has pointed out, a robust physical test regime will be needed to provide the vital technical evidence to support the industry as it seeks to improve its competence, knowledge and skills around life-safety systems.
The changes called for by the Hackitt Review are creating a significant shift towards more comprehensive testing and a more thorough design process to support the increasingly rigorous professional standards that will emerge from its final report.