Fire probes uncover cost of poor workmanship

15 June 2017 | By Ciara Holland, Martin Shipp, Dr David Crowder

Damage to roof structure of sheltered flats (see case study 1 below)

Poor workmanship does more than fail to meet Regulation 7 – it puts lives at risk. Ciara Holland, Martin Shipp and Dr David Crowder of BRE Global make the case.

Part B of Schedule 1 of the Building Regulations, along with other parts of Schedule 1, is solely concerned with the protection of life. BRE Global’s investigations of real fires have demonstrated that, overall, the Building Regulations and guidance in Approved Document B (ADB) on fire safety are working in respect of safeguarding lives from fire risks in buildings.

However, for a number of years, disproportionate damage to properties by fire has regularly been attributed to failure to meet Building Regulations requirements. In many cases, these failings have resulted from poor design and/or workmanship.

In the authors’ opinion, failings due to poor workmanship are a breach of Approved Document Regulation 7 of the Building Regulations.

Drawing on its latest fire investigation work, BRE Global is seeking to remind the industry about the implications of poor workmanship and the impact of inadequate design and construction in real fire scenarios.

Legislative requirements of Regulation 7

Regulation 7 states:

“Building work shall be carried out –

a) with adequate and proper materials which: are appropriate for the circumstances in which they are used; are adequately mixed or prepared; and are applied, used or fixed so as adequately to perform the functions for which they are designed; and

b) in a workmanlike manner.”

Approved Document Regulation 7 also stipulates that those responsible for building work “must ensure that the work complies with all applicable requirements of the Building Regulations”. This extends to the agent, designer, builder and/or installer, and potentially the building owner who can be served with an enforcement notice if the building does not comply.

Clearly, many of the fire protection features in a building will necessarily be concealed within the structure. Defects are generally not easy to identify and may only be highlighted after a significant event such as a fire. Even if enforcers become aware of defects, it is difficult to determine with certainty what constitutes poor workmanship.

However, fire risk assessments introduced under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 have resulted in the identification of construction defects, especially in passive fire protection between compartments.

This is an issue that has been making headlines recently. There have been reports of schools and hospitals being temporarily or partly closed due in part to inadequate fire protection, as owners recognise that lives are being put at risk. As public buildings that are subject to public scrutiny, these types of asset will tend to draw attention. But in BRE’s experience, poor workmanship is an issue across all building stock and all construction managers should be mindful of this.

A primer for the fire industry

One of the earliest reported instances of fatalities due to poor workmanship was a hotel fire in Aviemore, Scotland, in January 1995.

The incident was a primer for the fire industry to address issues concerning poor installation of passive fire protection. It led, in part, to the publication in 2003 of the first best practice guidance for passive fire protection by the Association for Specialist Fire Protection. Updated in 2014, Ensuring best practice for passive fire protection in buildings is now in its second edition.

Out of 69 fires that have been attended by BRE’s Fire Investigation Team over the past 10 years, in 21 cases the spread of fire was attributed, in some part, to issues with poor design and/or workmanship. Among the 21 fires were five near misses, one incident involving more than one fatality and one resulting in a single fatality. The case studies on this page and the next are typical examples of these investigations.

Understanding causes, finding solutions

BRE has recently published a series of reports that highlight issues of poor workmanship affecting fire behaviour in specific areas: roof voids, external facades and balconies (see box on p44 for links to these publications).

These issues frequently arise where fire spread has been a factor. But while the evidence indicates the reason for the fire spread, the root cause is not always readily apparent. For example, inadequate fire-stopping in roof voids has resulted in fire spread beyond the compartment of fire origin because, among other reasons, it has not been continued to the underside of the roof covering. 

Though this constitutes poor workmanship in a broad sense, we should be asking “why?” and “what led to this?”. Understanding the answers to these questions will hopefully lead to solutions and eventually an improvement, once these solutions have been implemented.

There are a range of commonly encountered problems and causes of disproportionate loss in building fires. Those most typically observed at fire scenes are:

The diagram below summarises possible solutions to the main types and causes of these problems.

Approved Document Regulation 7 offers some guidance on ways in which to establish adequacy of workmanship:

Wake-up call on workmanship

In its reports (see panel), the BRE highlights the need for careful consideration in the design, construction, maintenance and ongoing use of a building to protect lives from fire risks.

What is clear is the need for better education of, and communication between, all construction professionals as well as good design and management. Improvement in these areas will aid better workmanship and reduce the likelihood of fire-related deaths in the future.

Case study 1

October 2011: Fire in sheltered flats

A fire started in a first floor flat of a two- and three-storey block due to a fault in a television. It spread from the flat of fire origin out of a window and entered the roof void above via the eaves. Once in the roof void, the fire spread unhindered due to inadequate cavity barriers used for compartmentation, this being attributed to poor workmanship.

Because of the lightweight construction of the roof timbers, collapse of the roof structure occurred early on in the incident, which forced the fire crews to withdraw before they could complete rescue operations.

One elderly female resident died in the bedroom of a flat which was two doors along from the flat of fire origin. It is understood that the woman suffered from some degree of mobility impairment, which was typical of the residents in the property.

An undetermined number of other residents were understood to have become trapped in their flats and had to be rescued by the Fire and Rescue Service.

Case study 2

March 2015: Fire in cavity wall of flats

A fire was discovered in a four-storey purpose-built block of flats at around 12.38am. The building, with four flats on each floor, had been constructed in the 1990s from timber frame with predominantly brick cladding.

The fire started in a cavity wall on the ground floor, spreading horizontally then vertically to the second and third floors and into the roof space, where it burned through part of the roof. The cause is understood to have been due to an electrical cable arcing on a plasterboard fixing in the wall cavity. 

Cavity barriers were in place horizontally between floors. However, the oriel window detail at the front of the property (pictured above) did not have any cavity barriers either vertically or horizontally. These missing cavity barriers created a route for fire to spread up the building. No injuries were reported but 33 residents were evacuated as a precaution and the facade was left unstable.

Case study 3

December 2008: Night-time fire in flats

A fire was discovered at around 4am in the basement car park of a block of flats which had four storeys of accommodation above. The cause of the fire was undetermined but fully involved two cars.

Smoke and flames from the fire spread to the upper floors of the building as a result of the poor fire-stopping of penetrations in the concrete slab between the car park and the upper floors (see photograph above).

The fire burned through the floor above, via a poorly fire-stopped soil pipe, into a bedroom in one of the flats, setting fire to a bed in which one of the residents was asleep.

The inadequacy of the fire-stopping was attributed to poor workmanship, as some of the fire-stopping around penetrations was effective.

As a result, three people suffered from smoke inhalation and one sustained a broken ankle. Ten other people were rescued by the Fire and Rescue Service.

Acknowledgements: The research on which this article is based was commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and carried out by BRE. Any views expressed are not necessarily those of DCLG, with whose permission the article is published.

Ciara Holland is a senior fire investigator. Martin Shipp is technical development director, fire safety. Dr David Crowder is head of fire investigation and expert witness services.


Doesn't anyone ever check the work on behalf of the client or are all CoWs impotent & never take responsibility today?! Always ready & willing to blame the contractor. Pathetic!

Richard Moore, 25 May 2017

More often than not there is not a clerk of the works and approved inspectors and the architect/survey can only see what they can see at the time of inspection. It is the responsibility of the contractors to build what has been specified and detailed on the drawings, and question if they consider that the detail is not possible to build. Contractors have a duty to implement effective quality control measures to ensure the build is to the standards specified. Many projects are procured and let as D&B projects to a B&B contractor and thus the contractor is accepting this responsibility. The design is usually sound, as it should have received full plans approval by the BC Approved Inspector

Richard, 26 May 2017

developers and contractors do not hire Clerks of Works for the simple reason that they do not want anyone telling them when they do not comply or when shortcuts are taken. The onus on compliance rests solely with the developer/contractor and they must take responsibility for their shortcomings. Of recent investigations into failures in construction not one had a CoW - strange that ....

Les Howard FICWCI, 30 May 2017

Building control can only check the fire stopping presented to them at the time of inspection and often it is covered up or awkward to inspect properly.The comments by Richard Moore are unsound, we are not apathetic about fire safety in buildings , indeed do all we can to ensure that it is effectively placed.
Perhaps it is sloppy site management or more often than not the contractor asks people on site who are inexperienced with fire stopping works to undertake these details and that is where the weaknesses are. I would always recommend employing a Fire stopping subcontractor who can undertake the job with the correct products and can provide at the end of the job an audit and report of exactly the locations of fire stopping and the materials used with photos and takes contractual responsibility off the contractor. When did anyone last see a CoW on a job anyway?

Jason Wynne, 30 May 2017

Use of semi skilled labourers doing work for which they have had almost no training to install fire stop etc Also problems with workers having poor english skills, Use of autocad technicians doing detail design while IT skilled they have not had a good education in building construction, architects with almost no on site experience, poor contractors and lack of trade trained clerk of works

Roger Ward, 15 June 2017

I couldn't agree more with Richard Moore on his comments above.
Clearly a lack of site supervision on the Grenfell Tower as using poorly paid, semi-skilled overseas workers will sadly result in disasters such as Grenfell!

Eve Nobrega, 15 June 2017

Its down to materials. They are out there ready to be used, however we are an Industry locked in tradition or timber paneled homes. The Chief Fire Offices Association are still at odds with SIPS panel construction because of the fire risk. The more people we cluster together the more that risk increases as proven by the fire in Scotland and Liverpool in November. David

DAVID EVANS, 19 June 2017

It isn't only poorly trained technicians that can generate problems.

Some time ago I had a stint in a small office, which had a partly European trained staff. The Czech Architect in particular thought my moaning about fire safety and compliance with building regulations was hilarious.

I had little patience for such attitudes then, and have less now.

Charles, 20 June 2017

How about providing a more informed and balanced account of the investigations with a follow up article entitled 'Fire probes uncover cost of poor design'?

'Understanding causes, finding solutions' is always useful, but only providing one part of a complex problem and selected causes doesn't help in providing a rounded understanding of the issues.

Just dealing with workmanship issues might provide an easy headline, perhaps it's just easier to blame contractors, but doesn't do justice to such an important and currently sensitive topic.

The table refers to more solutions to poor design than poor workmanship. So what did the BRE investigations find out about failings due to poor design?

Steve S, 21 June 2017

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