BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

How Scottish building safety has transformed

The recommendations of a fire safety working group and Holyrood's desire to address cladding issues have prompted significant reforms to building standards in Scotland

Author:

  • Gordon Spence MRICS

21 February 2023

Edinburgh, capital city of Scotland

Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, London in June 2017, the Scottish government set up the Building and Fire Safety: Ministerial Working Group (MWG) to oversee a review of building and fire regulatory frameworks and relevant matters.

The aim was to ensure people are safe in Scotland's buildings and make any recommendations for improvement as required.

In 2018, the Building Standards (Fire Safety) Review Panel was also convened as a subgroup of the MWG. This panel comprised experts from academia, professional institutions, local authority building standards, fire testing, research and consultancy, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the NHS.

Representatives of the UK, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish governments as well as Scottish government officials also attended the meetings for cross-nation information and awareness.

Panel proposals prompt regulatory revisions

The panel has made recommendations at several stages which have led to changes in regulations and supporting guidance.

In October 2019, revisions to the technical handbooks:

  • lowered the height for buildings which combustible cladding can be used from 18m to 11m 
  • removed the single-stair escape option for new high-rise domestic buildings with a storey above 18m 
  • introduced provision for evacuation alert systems as well as signage identifying storeys and dwellings in high-rise buildings 
  • increased the minimum dimension between operating space for high-reach firefighting appliances and buildings.

Subsequently, in March 2021, the mandatory requirement in Standard 2.15 within the Technical Handbooks to install automatic fire suppression systems in new and converted buildings was expanded.

This now applies only to a building which:

  • is an enclosed shopping centre
  • is a residential care building
  • forms the whole or part of a sheltered housing complex
  • is a school building other than a building forming part of an existing school
  • is an extension to a school building where it is not reasonably practicable to install an automatic fire suppression system in that building or extension
  • is a building containing a flat or maisonette
  • is a social housing dwelling
  • is a shared multi-occupancy residential building, such as traditional student accommodation.

In addition, a public consultation on the fire safety of external wall systems was carried out in 2021, with an independent analysis of this by Optimal Economics published in January 2022.

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Amended regulations tighten technical requirements

Following the final review panel meeting on 24 January 2022, the Building (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2022 was passed by Scottish Parliament on 22 April with the most recent changes to the regulations, standards and supporting guidance for external wall systems coming into force on 1 June 2022.

These introduced several significant changes in both the domestic and non-domestic technical handbooks:

  • The use of any combustible materials is banned in external wall cladding systems on dwellings and other defined relevant buildings with a storey at a height of 11m or more. The ban includes the specified attachments of balconies, solar shading or solar panels attached to an external wall. Relevant buildings include: houses, flats, maisonettes; places of assembly, entertainment or recreation; hospitals; residential care buildings and sheltered housing complexes; and shared multi-occupancy residential buildings such as student accommodation.

  • For relevant buildings, a large-scale fire test to BS 8414 Fire performance of external cladding systems can no longer be used as an alternative means of proving compliance with Building Regulations. However, the test may still be used for lower-risk buildings that are more than 11m high, including offices and shops. Annexes 2.B and 2.E on reaction to fire from the domestic and non-domestic handbooks, respectively, confirm situations where BS 8414 may still also be used as an alternative to European Classification A1 or A2 in relation to BS EN 13501-1: 2018

  • The Scottish Government's Building Standards Division has requested notification from local authority verifiers under section 34 of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003, where BS 8414 and associated BR 135 and extended field of application assessments under BS 9414, have been used to demonstrate compliance with the mandatory building standards as a means of monitoring this route of approval.

  • The use of highly combustible metal composite material is banned in external wall cladding systems or as an internal lining on any buildings, regardless of height. The definition of such material is: 'any panel or sheet, having a thickness of no more than 10mm, which consists of a number of layers, two or more of which are made of metal, alloy, or metal compound and one or more substantial layer of which is made of material having a gross calorific value of more than 35MJ/kg when tested in accordance with BS EN ISO 1716: 2018.' 

  • Cladding on buildings is now subject to the 2022 standards and requires building warrant approval. Like-for-like cladding replacement is now limited to minor repair work. This reflects the expectation that, to manage risk, such work should meet current standards and be subject to scrutiny by local authorities explained in schedule 3 to regulation 5 of the Building (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2022

  • Minor repair is defined in the schedule to mean 'isolated repair or replacement of elements of cladding which are physically damaged or have degraded to the point that the element is no longer fit for its intended purpose.'

Holyrood offers fire risk advice and support

Meanwhile, in August 2021 the Scottish government also published an advice note on how to determine the fire risk posed by external wall systems for a wide range of existing multistorey residential buildings, such as domestic blocks of flats, student accommodation, hospitals and care homes, hotels and hostels.

A second updated advice note, incorporating additional guidance on the appraisal of external wall systems included under the single building assessment (SBA) scheme was published in December 2022.

The Scottish government is also providing funding to help homeowners assess their external wall cladding systems through SBAs. Where remediation work has been identified, any cladding replacement other than minor repairs will require a building warrant and have to comply with current standards.

New group looking at enforcement and compliance

The BSD is also leading an enforcement and sanctions working group, which is looking into increasing penalties for non-compliance offences, and the introduction of enforcement powers after completion certificates have been accepted. This will be coupled with an enforcement handbook and training for local authority building standards officers.

In addition, consultation and research are under way on the introduction of a compliance plan manager (CPM) role for high-risk buildings. The CPM will be appointed by the applicant and collaborate with the designer and contractor to produce a compliance plan that will be agreed with the building standards verifier. The appointment of a CPM and the agreement of a plan will help to remove ambiguity over responsibilities when it comes to ensuring the construction complies with regulation.

RICS' global director building standards director Gary Strong comments: 'RICS continues to support and collaborate with the Scottish government on fire safety, and any further changes will be notified to members.'

'Consultation and research are under way on the introduction of a compliance plan manager role for high-risk buildings'

 

Gordon Spence MRICS is building standards manager at Aberdeen City Council
Contact Gordon: Email

Related competencies include: Building pathology, Fire safety, Legal/regulatory compliance

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