Case Study: A major cladding issue


Name: St Francis Tower


Location: Ipswich, Suffolk


Background


Following the fire at Grenfell Tower in London in June 2017, Block Management UK Ltd began to investigate the safety of St Francis Tower in Ipswich. The building was not as tall as Grenfell (17 floors compared to 24) however it too had cladding, this cladding was subject to the fire safety procedure recommendations that were implemented after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

The Building Research Establishment (BRE), in Hertfordshire, had begun to offer a free testing service to identify hazardous cladding following the disastrous fire. The BRE is a state-of-the-art research facility that has the assurance of impartiality, having started out as a Government-funded laboratory investigating new housing materials and construction methods after the First World War. [1]

Block Management UK Ltd took advantage of this service and sent samples to the BRE for the application of the cladding tests, in June 2017. We believe we were one of the first private property management companies to do so.

Grenfell Tower had highlighted the hazards of ACM Aluminium Composite Material cladding systems, with a subsequent advice note published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government pointing out that "ACM with an unmodified polyethylene filler with any type of insulation presents a significant hazard on buildings over 18m" [2]

The BRE advised us that they would not test our samples as it was not in fact ACM cladding, however they recommended that we have the cladding system as a whole independently investigated with appropriate contactors. This is the same advice we received from the government.

We subsequently had various reports carried out by approved competent contractors in relation to the cladding, fire safety and general related health and safety.

The findings were that the rainscreen cladding system on St Francis Tower contained Trespa HPL (high pressure laminate) cladding panels.  This product had not been tested with the BS 8414 tests [3] and have since been shown to be more flammable than ACM cladding. [4]. However it has since been established that this type of cladding was fire more combustible than that of the cladding found on Grenfell Tower.

There were also noted issues with the type of insulation used, method of fixings, a lack of required fire breaks and compartmentation. Compartmentation is an essential part of fire safety design as it subdivides a building into areas of manageable risk. This provides adequate means of escape and provides fire separation from adjoining buildings. Eventually it was confirmed that the cladding system along with the internal fire compartmentation was not safe/fit for purpose.

Risk-Mitigating Works


A plan of action was formed to ensure that mitigating works were undertaken to ensure safety for those occupying the building. This involved a joint effort between Block Management UK Ltd, Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service and a range of accredited contractors as well as Ipswich Borough Council.

In June 2018 Block Management UK received three quotes for the removal of the cladding.

The fire safety risk mitigating measures started with some internal fire compartmentation works and a temporary four-man waking watch team patrolling the building 24/7.



Waking Watch

St Francis Tower was originally designed to have a 'Stay Put/Defend in Place' fire action procedure. This type of procedure required that, in the event of a fire, residents should stay in their flat and wait for the fire service to attend unless they were affected by smoke or fire.

However, it was now known that the building?s cladding issues and lack of internal compartmentation meant the flats did not have the 60-minute fire proofing required for a Stay Put policy and there was a much higher risk due to the cladding/insulation issues. The building could no longer be covered by such a fire action procedure.
Consequently, the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service and fire safety contractor ordered the building to change to a temporary evacuation fire action procedure until all risk issues were resolved.

With no communal fire alarm system due to the building having a Stay Put fire action procedure, there was no means of alerting residents to a fire should one occur.  The waking watch is essentially a walking fire alarm system. The waking watch contractor appointed was OakPark Security who carried out their duties in accordance with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Temporary Simultaneous Guidance Document. [5]

Under these guidelines, the waking watch regularly patrolled the building, twenty-four hours a day, with walkie-talkies to maintain communication amongst the team. The members of the watch were tasked with looking out for potential risks i.e. people smoking, to reduce those risks and to alert emergency services if required.
In the event of a fire, the waking watch could bang on doors or use air horns to notify residents to help safely evacuate the building within a set time frame.
The installation of further fire safety measures was managed by the construction consultancy service Oander. Oander oversaw the installation of Smoke Ventilation and L5 Addressable Fire Alarm Systems as a first stage to a larger package of fire safety works.

Following these measures, they completed a retrofit installation of a new stairwell AOV (Automatic Opening smoke Vent), Fire Alarm and Life Safety Sprinkler System throughout the building whilst St Francis Tower was still occupied.

The pre-existing AOV was replaced and extended and linked to the new fire alarm and sprinkler system to ensure that any smoke that might enter the communal areas could be dispersed and the system was checked and authorised by Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service. These new safety mitigating measures meant that there was now an adequate means of notification to evacuate as well as a much safer building, so the waking watch were as a result of the completed works able to be removed.


Managing the Situation


Throughout this operation, Block Management UK Ltd have coordinated and attended bi-monthly meetings with the major stakeholders including Suffolk County Council (Suffolk Council Planning) Ipswich Borough Council, Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service and the Freeholder's representatives.

Block Management UK Ltd has also kept leaseholders updated throughout the whole process. Updates on the works have been sent by direct mail, leaflet drops or group email messages. We have also sent out advice on fire safety and the compliancy requirements leaseholders should follow within their flats, for example smoke detectors, fire doors, door closers and intumescent strips. Fire action notices have been updated where/as required.

Block Management UK Ltd has also held leaseholder meetings where cladding/fire safety experts and Suffolk Fire and Rescue service have also been present to help explain the reasons behind the works.

UPDATE


In ongoing works, around 55% of the cladding was successfully removed. However further safety issues were revealed with regards to the voids behind the cladding as well as EPC/energy issues, delaying completion of the works. This was not a major safety concern as the building now has its own fire alarm system and sprinkler system. The next stage is to replace the cladding system with a safe compliant cladding system, and address any internal compartmentation issues, for which meetings are arranged to discuss and plan further accordingly.

References:


1    www.bre.co.uk

2. Government Building Safety Programme ? update and consolidated advice for building owners following large scale testing, ADVICE NOTE 11 MHCLG/BSP/Advice Note/11/280218, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government

3. https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/widely-used-combustible-cladding-has-never-passed-large-scale-test-57142

4.  McKenna ST, Jones N, Peck G, Dickens K, Pawelec W, Oradei S, Harris S, A Stec A, Hull TR, Fire behaviour of modern facade materials ? understanding the Grenfell Tower fire, Journal of Hazardous Materials (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2018.12.077

5. Guidance to support a temporary change to a simultaneous evacuation strategy in purpose-built block of flats, NFCC National Fire Chiefs Council, 01/05/18


(21/05/2019 00:00:00)