ou don’t have to look hard to find evidence of public support for tighter regulations on the use of sprinklers in new and existing buildings following the Grenfell Tower disaster. The National Fire Chiefs Council, RIBA and the London Assembly Planning Committee are amongst the organisations to have called for a change in fire safety laws surrounding sprinklers. Jeremy Corbyn and Dany Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, have also expressed their support for mandatory sprinkler installations since June 2017.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s review into Building Regulations and fire safety laws may have focused on fire safety management, but in all the debate around cost, process, red tape and product, one fact can’t be ignored; sprinkler systems save lives. It is no coincidence anybody has ever died from a fire-related incident in the UK in a building with a working sprinkler system. In fact, research by the National Fire Chiefs Council shows that sprinklers are 99% effective at containing, controlling or extinguishing a fire when activated.
The English Housing Survey shows that there are 425,000 flats situated in high-rise blocks in England, including 189,000 rented from local authorities or housing associations. However, just 6.5% of buildings over five storeys or 18m high have sprinklers.
This is because of the simple fact that current regulations do not require it. Despite varying regulations applying to new domestic properties across the home nations, nowhere in the UK is it a requirement to retrospectively fit sprinkler systems into existing buildings.
Part of the issue is that for too long the construction industry has had this perception that retrofit installations are messy, disruptive, unattractive and, most importantly, too expensive to ensure viability.
With modern systems, however, this isn’t the case. Press-fit systems offer fast, reliable connections, with no hot works, lightweight piping and a clean finish. There are cost savings too – BSRIA calculates that the installation efficiencies of press-fit can deliver cost savings of approximately 27% when compared with screwed steel pipework.
Whatever the outcome of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, press-fit sprinkler installations – when manufactured to the required standards and installed by approved contractors – offer a viable, cost-efficient and proven fire suppression system.
Taking practical steps
Even now, in advance of any potential change in regulations, many local authorities are already taking matters into their own hands and approving mass retrofit sprinkler installations across their high-rise housing stock. In Birmingham, for example, the City Council has recently approved a project to install sprinklers in all 213 of its tower blocks, despite initial funding concerns. There are other examples already complete or in progress, in Southampton, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and more.
The cost of sprinkler installations will vary of course, but the Fire Sector Federation, a forum for organisations in the fire and safety sector created to advise and help shape policy on fire-related issues, estimated it would have cost around £200,000 to install sprinklers at Grenfell Tower.
In most cases, the sensible approach is to combine sprinkler installations with other necessary improvements, to minimise disruption to residents and drive cost efficiencies above anything else. Oxford City Council, for example, completed a £20m renovation project of five tower blocks which included sprinkler installations back in 2016 – later replacing cladding too, in response to the Grenfell Tower fire.
There are other considerations, of course – namely the capacity within the construction industry to complete these works – but with a real and urgent focus on fire safety since the Grenfell disaster, the lead time from specification to installation is lower than ever. Of course, demand for approved contractors will soar if and when fire safety legislation is changed to mandate retrofit sprinkler installations in tower blocks.
Even ahead of any potential change, there is no reason why life-saving sprinkler systems can’t be installed retrospectively in a safe, clean and cost-effective manner.