There has never been a more unstable time in terms of safety regulations for housing, particularly following the disaster at Grenfell Tower earlier this year. Extra precautions are now being taken UK-wide to ensure that all rented accommodation meets fire safety regulations. But have Housing Associations really learnt their lesson following recent events?
Friday 25th August saw six apartment buildings in Cardiff Bay, all owned by a private housing association, fail fire safety tests. Not only does this indicate that housing safety standards are in disarray, it also provides a basis for a drastic revaluation of safety standards, particularly with large apartment blocks that have previously failed fire safety tests.
The incident in Cardiff Bay stemmed from the aluminium composite material (ACM) that was used as cladding for the block; this was the same material used on Grenfell Tower. Other high-rise blocks in the area surrounding the Cardiff Bay estates have conducted testing of cladding materials, but the latter is still to undertake these tests.
Of 111 block buildings tested by the Building Research Establishment in July, 82 blocks failed fire safety tests because of unsafe cladding. The cladding is layered over an insulation layer fixed to the concrete structure of the tower. But recent sample tests have proved the material to be unsafe. Combined with relaxed safety tests, the safety of many accommodation blocks is at risk- and whilst block management companies are beginning to rethink fire safety strategy, there are still errors that need resolving.
Houses for Multiple Occupation (HMO)
As both the Cardiff Bay accommodation blocks and Grenfell Tower are large-scale HMOs, it is important to understand the fire safety requirements for this type of accommodation block and why they are pertinent after recent events.
Following the Housing Act of 2004, HMOs are categorised by having properties occupied by more than one family or group of residents, with each property containing more than two people. HMOs can include bed sits and house shares and self-contained flats. Supervising HMOs will have additional responsibilities set out in the Housing Act of 2004 that landlords must be aware of.
Landlords & HMO Fire Safety
As a landlord for houses in multiple occupation there are several aspects of fire safety measures that should be addressed. The main legislation that covers fire safety is the Regulatory Reform for Fire Safety Order 2005, which addresses the compulsory fire risk assessments that landlords are required to carry out in common areas of HMOs.
- 1 or 2 Story HMO- Interconnected mains smoke and fire alarms, tested every week. Carbon Monoxide Alarms present in all rooms.
- 3+ Story HMO- Addressable Fire Alarm Control System with central control panel, also tested weekly. Call-out points with break glass units near exits and corridors. Carbon Monoxide Alarms present in all rooms.
All HMOs must undergo a fire safety risk assessment in all communal areas, and are required to have a comprehensive emergency fire procedure. A fire risk assessment aims to prevent and reduce the possibility of fire occurring. Examining the practicality of escape routes, fire detection devices, firefighting equipment, signage and escape plans.
Fire Safety Equipment
In addition, all areas must have relevant extinguishers and fire equipment present throughout the building, including alarms. These include, but are not limited to:
- Fire Blankets.
- Extinguishers: Water, AFFF Form, CO2, ABC Powder and Wet Chemical (where relevant).
- Emergency escape lighting at stairs or at changes in floor level.
- Partitioned fire doors fitted with door closers, separating the building into zones. All escape routes are not permitted to be near heaters or cooking equipment.
The partitioning of the building using fire doors must be done based on each door having a relative fire durability. For example, a zone of 30 minutes requires a fire door capable of withstanding fire for that 30 minutes, referred to as an FD30. 60-minute partitions require an FD60 and so on. Large-scale accommodation blocks, such as HBOs usually have partitioning per 60 minutes.
- Compartmentation to prevent/slow the progress of fire. Usually plaster boards between walls or by fire resistant doors.
The landlord should be the first point of contact should any of these regulations not be in place, or the tenant(s) report faulty equipment. Failure to act upon these faults not only compromises the safety of the tenants, but can often result in legal action against the landlord.
Block Alarm Systems
Fire detection is not only crucial in accommodation blocks, but a necessary component of building management. Alarm systems should be a minimum of 15dB (decibels) to wake those asleep and reach those in loud areas such as boiler and server rooms.
Alarm systems are specified into grades. Grade A alarm systems consist of a central control panel with call points. Grade D systems consist of mains powered smoke or heat alarms interlinked with radio communication.
Block Management Services
PDF Estates offer bespoke residential block management services, with the organisation of fire safety certification. Incorporating block management services as a landlord maintains the safety of the tenants and gives the highest level of fire protection.
Naturally, the prevention of fire can never be fully achievable, however that does not mean safety standards should slip. A Block Management Service may help ease the pressure on landlords, whilst maintaining the highest level of fire safety.