As fire safety is a key challenge for the industry, Keyfix believes it is important to engage with key stakeholders to explore how we can implement best practices for a safer and more efficient sector. TP Bennett is a leading independent architectural, design and planning practice, owned and managed in the UK, that is working to create positive change in the sector. Keyfix spoke with Nia Rodgers, Senior Architect at TP Bennett, to discuss best practices in fire safety from an architectural perspective.
Tell us about TP Bennett, including its history and future vision for the field of housebuilding?
TP Bennett is a practice of approximately 300 professionals working across architecture and interior design disciplines. We also work across several sectors, including residential, mixed-use, offices and hospitality, and collaborate with a number of leading housebuilders, such as Wates and Barratt London.
TP Bennett is committed to working with clients that align with our values, such as championing sustainable approaches that deliver the highest quality experience for the end user, collaborative working practices and, in particular, the use of modern building methods that cut waste and increase efficiency. We see the future of housebuilding as moving towards those innovative construction methods that will help the industry to operate more efficiently and sustainably.
What is the role of TP Bennett in relation to fire safety, and what are the main challenges you face with this?
As a Senior Architect, I take a lead role within teams delivering quality housing. As such, I, and we as a practice, work closely with the contractor and other specialists to specify products and deliver details which, preferably from a futureproofing perspective, exceed the requirements for safety, durability and buildability.
One of the main challenges is specifying for interfaces where there may be issues with compatibility between various products within a facade. Also, as architects working with contractors to deliver buildings, I think another challenge is often carving out time within estate programmes to explore options and systems on the market that will deliver the most robust solutions. It’s important to ensure we have time and money to carry out this due diligence rather than these important processes being rushed.
How has TP Bennett’s approach changed in the aftermath of Grenfell?
We’ve always been proactive in recording and highlighting risks to clients. The changes to regulations and some uncertainty about the application for specific details mean that this process needs to be even more rigorous. Fire safety is an absolute priority, and the Grenfell Tower tragedy has reinforced the importance of upholding this approach for us.
We advocate the early involvement of specialists and suppliers so that all issues surrounding compliance and compatibility can be addressed, which will result in products and details forming part of a fully considered system from start to finish. By effectively recording this collaborative design process, we can work with clients, contractors and regulatory bodies to instil full confidence in the safety and robustness of the design for the end user.
Lastly, we encourage regular detailed discussions with regulatory bodies, such as building control and warranty providers, to ensure that we are keeping up to date with the latest developments, and we will share this knowledge within the practice. I think post-Grenfell, those kinds of practices are being reinforced within our working day.
In 2022, the Government announced a temporary exemption, due to end December 2023, on non-combustible products. In light of this, what is your advice to housebuilders regarding product specifications?
Although the existing Building Regulations have been labelled as not fit for purpose, we maintain that the ban on combustible materials within facades ensures that there’s no room for cutting corners for fire safety, and that should never be the approach taken by the industry. However, the positive takeaway from this is that it forces the market to innovate to create safer quality products that contribute towards high performance while we wait for regulation change to be reinforced, which is what the industry is demanding.
What, in your opinion, is the role of architects in upholding correct product specifications?
It’s vital that architects scrutinise product specifications and performance specifications concerning compliance and quality. In design and build contracts, architects should already endeavour to ensure, as part of the working relationship with the contractor, that any alternative products are submitted to them for review with the intent to uphold quality and compliance. There should be time and budget allocated for this within the programme.
There’s often a risk when products have changed late in the programme that alternative specifications are not compatible with other products within the building envelope. To reiterate, early engagement with specialists and the full facade supply chain should be prioritised to ensure that all of the products are one part of a fully-compliant facade system that will stand up against future regulation changes.
Why is using A1-rated products important, and what problems do you think the market will face by not choosing to specify products of this calibre?
We don’t know where the federal regulations will go, so the market must constantly innovate and provide sustainable and safe products for architects and contractors to choose from. Where there is uncertainty surrounding regulations specifying anything other than the safest, certified and tested systems – including A1 products – may jeopardise building warranties and increase insurance costs.
Therefore, it’s in the long-term interests of housebuilders and their end users that the path of least risk is taken; I believe that path is one where A1 products are available. By not choosing A1 products, specifiers risk the viability of products a few years down the line and being left behind by an industry that’s moving towards the very highest-performing options to guarantee safe, durable and sustainable properties that continue to stand up to Building Regulations.
What does championing best practice mean to TP Bennett?
Championing best practice means working with the best suppliers and contractors who embrace a collaborative approach and open dialogue to the industry’s most pressing problems, which includes the key challenges of fire safety and sustainability. Working with people that prioritise those issues and working with suppliers and clients who always endeavour to act in the best interests for both the industry as a whole and the needs of the client and end user is championing best practice for TP Bennett.