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How High is the Cladding Risk? Interview with Geoff Wilkinson

Following the publication of the Hackitt Review in May 2018 the Government amended the Building Regulations to restrict the use of combustible materials in and on external walls and specified attachments, including balconies. This came into effect in December 2018 with the Government committing to review the effectiveness of the ban after one year.

In January 2020 they released a new consultation on proposed changes to the Regulations. This looked at the current scope of the ban, the list of exemptions and proposals to include additional attachments to external walls in the ban.

Currently, the ban on combustible external walls only applies to residential or institutional buildings above 18 metres. Following several high-profile fires in buildings under 18 metres tall, however, there have been calls for the ban to be extended.

High-rise proposals

The 2020 consultation proposes changing the building types covered by the ban to include hotels, hostels and boarding houses. There have been suggestions, however, that this may have a negative impact on the hospitality industry and a cost to businesses of £64.5 million and £66.5 million if hotels and hostels are included. In light of the 2020 pandemic, which had a particular impact on hospitality, these changes will be even harder on them.

Next is the proposal to change the building height threshold from 18 metres to 11 metres. The government considers that buildings of between 11 and 18 metres may have the same fire risk as taller ones.

It should be remembered that, whilst the ban does not apply to existing buildings where no work is being carried out, future legislation will require a case-by-case risk assessment and buildings below 11M may still need combustible material removed. A particular concern comes from timber balconies which form the only route of escape. Ideally, such balconies should be non-combustible but, if they cannot be replaced, the balcony will need additional fire protection.

Banning metal composite cladding

A total ban on the use of metal composite panels in and on the external walls is also proposed. This would apply to all types of new buildings or those undergoing a material change of use or building work. Research concludes that products with a polyethylene core are the most hazardous cladding material.

The ban would also apply to solar shading products. Currently solar shading products such as blinds, shutters, awnings, brise soleil, and similar products are also not required to be non-combustible under the wording of the ban. However, there is a risk that solar shading made of combustible materials could create a path for fire spread. Whilst non-combustible sun shading products are currently available, they are made from non-flexible material and do not retract. Therefore, the current proposal is to extend the ban to cover solar shading but exempt retractable awnings over shops at ground level.

The use of laminate glass

The final proposal to be aware of, specifically for balconies, relates to the use of laminated glass. There is currently no laminated glass available which can achieve the appropriate classification (i.e. class A1 or A2-s1, d0) because of the interlayer used to bind the two glass layers together. The use of monolithic toughened glass in balconies does not comply either, as it creates other safety issues when it breaks.

As a result, it means that it is not currently possible to design glass balconies that are able to achieve all the required safety measures and reaction-to-fire classifications. The ban will remain in place, but the Government intend to commission research on the use of laminated glass. They want to better understand its contribution to fire spread and overall risk before considering whether to exempt laminated glass in balconies. It is likely to be at least another year before this problem will be resolved.

In the meantime, it is essential to ensure a compliant solution when considering glass balconies.

This article is based on an interview with Geoff Wilkinson, Managing Director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants.

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