BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Surveyor casts expert eye over flats' fire risk

Upgrades to a converted block of flats specified by a building surveyor show that there is always more that can be done to improve fire safety

Author: Gary Strong

09 September 2021

Converted block of flats, East Cliff, Bournemouth

The converted block of flats in East Cliff, Bournemouth © Gary Strong

Over many years, some buildings can be adapted to serve a range of different uses – but without a comprehensive overview from a building surveyor, these changes may present a considerable, cumulative fire risk. In the upgrade of a block of converted flats in Bournemouth, a professional had the opportunity to address just such a backlog of safety issues.

In around 1920, a three-storey house was constructed in a pine-tree-lined road in the picturesque East Cliff area of the town. During the 1950s it became a boarding school, with an additional wing being constructed. Subsequently it became a convalescent home, and then holiday flatlets.

In the late 1980s, during the boom in the residential market, it was converted into a total of 18 self-contained leasehold units - studio flats, one-bedroom flats and a single two-bedroom flat. The latter used the roof space, and effectively made the block four storeys high. However, the developer went bankrupt as the market crashed in the late 1980s before the conversion could be fully completed.

As is typical with conversions of residential premises, there were many challenges with the project. The freehold was owned by a few of the leaseholders but not all 18 of them, and the sole director was a lay leaseholder with no knowledge of buildings. It is fair to say, too, that the managing agents were incompetent.

So, over a 20-year period, the building started to deteriorate. Defects such as friable asbestos in the now-redundant communal boiler room were never remedied.

Backlog of defects

By the late 1990s, there was a considerable backlog of defects. A new leasehold owner of one of the flats – who happened to be a chartered building surveyor – took over as the sole director of the freehold management company, and in time new managing agents were appointed. This heralded a strategic attempt to deal with the backlog of defects, and to ensure the building was structurally safe and sound.

The advent of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 meant that the emergency services requested in 2006 that an alarm system be installed in the common parts of the building. A fire risk assessment (FRA) was also required for the first time.

But a later FRA in 2013 identified more improvements that were necessary, such as replacing plain glass above a flat entrance door with Georgian wired glass.

More than the minimum

Nevertheless, in the view of the director the concerns over fire-stopping – especially between timber floors and fire safety concerns in the industry post-Grenfell – meant it was necessary to go beyond the minimum requirements in the FRA and make further fire safety improvements.

These improvements – variously carried out between 2017-2020 – included:

  • installation of emergency lighting to the common parts internally
  • changing all flat entrance doors and communal cupboard doors to new flush FR30S fire doors with self-closers, intumescent strips, cold smoke seals, and three fire-resisting hinges, as the doors installed in the 1980s – including those to cupboards under the main staircase and to the metal secondary fire escape – were not fire doors
  • upgrading the fire doors opening on to the main staircase from each floor with cold smoke seals and three fire-resisting hinges
  • replacing plain glass fronting on to the metal fire escape with Georgian wired glass
  • extending the communal fire detection and alarm system into each flat with a combined heat detector–alarm sounder unit; smoke detectors would have created too many false alarms as many of the flats have open-plan kitchens and living rooms
  • upgrading electrical distribution boards in the two meter rooms from plastic to metal
  • testing electrical installation in the common parts, and ensuring visual inspection at least once a quarter, with a five-year retest programme
  • removing the flimsy timber storage cupboard in the second-floor corridor, which represented a significant fire hazard on an escape route
  • instigating weekly testing of the communal alarm system, monthly testing of the emergency lights, and monthly checks for obstructions and fire hazards in the escape route such as furniture dumped by tenants, and monthly checking of communal fire doors
  • individual anti-surge miniature circuit breakers fitted to the distribution boards in every flat, following a spate of fires in the Bournemouth area in late 2017 caused by incoming electric supply surges
  • improving fire action notices on every floor, confirming the strategy of simultaneous evacuation
  • installing new emergency lighting on the external metal fire escape
  • replacing lighting in the communal corridors, which was timed to go off at 11.30pm, with new low-energy, low-heat LED lamps in communal corridors to be kept on all night; the original system was deemed a risk in the event of a fire at night with thick black smoke, as they would not be seen
  • improving fire-stopping in the two communal electric meter rooms
  • repairing and servicing the metal fire escape, which was an unusual weighted pendulum type to the hinged bottom flight
  • installation of a premises information box in the ground-floor communal lobby so firefighters can access floor plans, FRA and other information
  • installation of fire extinguishers in the common parts: although some managing agents prefer not to install these in blocks of flats, citing potential vandalism and lack of training in their use, the director maintained that these had prevented many small fires in flats from developing further, and no issues have been experienced to date
  • regular engagement with residents, most of whom are tenants rather than owner–occupiers, on fire safety.

All in all, the total cost has been a little more than £1,100 per flat – a reasonable amount to improve the fire safety of a block once described as a tinder-box.

No fires have yet tested the improvements, but the leaseholders and the tenants are pleased with the upgraded safety measures. Disappointingly, however, there has been no corresponding reduction in insurance premiums, as insurers never ask questions about this at renewal.

I would be interested to hear from other surveyors on their experiences of going beyond the minimum requirements of an FRA to improve fire safety.

'Concerns over fire-stopping, especially between timber floors, meant it was necessary to make further fire safety improvements'

Gary Strong FRICS is RICS global building standards director and chair of the UN-backed International Fire Safety Standards Coalition
Contact Gary: Email

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