Retrofitting sprinklers? Consider this
In the wake of one of the largest multi fatality residential fires ever seen, organisations managing large portfolios of residential buildings are understandably taking a step back and reviewing their approach to fire risk management and in particular reconsidering its approach to retrofitting sprinklers systems in its high rise residential premises. The political pressure to install sprinkler retrospectively is of course, quite understandably significant, as is the desire to be seen to be doing the right thing.
In each of the 4 countries which make up the United Kingdom sprinkler requirements at build level in residential premises differ:
- England – Required in newly constructed residential premises over 30m in height,
- Scotland – Required over 18m in height,
- Northern Ireland – No requirement to install sprinklers at any height.
- Wales – Required in all new residential premises – regardless of height,
What is significant, regardless of the requirement to install when being built, retrospective installation is not a requirement and should only be based on risk assessment, predominantly due to the occupancy demographic or indeed where the existing buildings fire precautions differ from current standards to a point where no other control measure is practical.
In October 2013, the National Assembly for Wales passed new requirements that require an automatic fire suppression system (commonly referred to as a fire sprinkler system) to be installed in new and converted homes in Wales and the despite being covered by exactly the same fire safety legislation as England (The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005). The requirements are clearly massively different and the cost to build residential premises in Wales increased as a result of this requirement. It is fair to surmise that the difference in the 2 countries positions is based only on the government’s moral position as the both countries fire statistics and likely cost to install sprinklers would be broadly identical. Wales should be applauded for such a bold move, clearly setting themselves apart from the other 3 countries within the United Kingdom.
In 2009 a tragically fatal fire at Lakanal House left 6 dead, it was the largest multi-fatality residential fire in living memory and importantly the first since the RR(FS)O 2005 was enacted. The fire rocked the social housing world and after the coroner’s inquest a rule 43 letter was sent to Southwark council (A rule 43 letter is one that is issued by the coroner detailing adjustments that in their opinion would significantly reduce the likely hood of a similar fatality) urging the council to reconsider the question of retrofitting sprinklers based on a reduction of install cost and disruption.
Organisations have historically dismissed retrofitting based on high cost to install and maintain and additionally, unacceptable disruption to residents. Budget holders are also often sceptical about industry reassurance of the reduction in install costs, citing the asbestos removal, feasibility surveys and potential structural strengthening of building elements such as roofs (where tanks might be installed) as a hidden costs. BAFSA sought to disprove this perception by commissioning a retro fit project at a high rise sheltered housing block in Sheffield (Callow Mount Sheffield).
The Callow Mount project identified a cost of £1150 + VAT per flat. Inclusive of maintenance the annualised cost was identified as £40 per annum per flat on an anticipated 30 year life. In short, the annualised cost of sprinklers cost 75p per flat per week. The reduced cost is predominantly down to the change in the pipework construction type which has moved from steel to plastic and the improvement in water supplies in buildings which reduces infrastructure costs.
The cost to install sprinklers is now cheap enough to install in abundance, but importantly the premises where sprinklers are installed should be based on a risk assessment to ensure that the finite resources available are spent on premises which would benefit from them most.
So if you are looking at retro fitting sprinklers how do you best go about it?
Organisations should undertake a strategic review of their building portfolio to categorically identify where sprinklers would best be located to have the biggest impact on life safety if a fire was to actually occur. This should be base predominantly on your organisations fire experience within your own portfolio and also based on statistical analysis. Broadly speaking the occupancy demographic will have the most significant influence on whether a premises should be earmarked for sprinkler installation.
Once you have clearly identified which premises your organisations would like to install sprinklers in it is critical that you undertake a number of feasibility studies to identify whether that building is physically capable of having a sprinkler system installed. The idea that you can simply ring a sprinkler contractor and order an installation might seem like a logical idea but in reality this methodology is flawed. The engagement of a competent building services consultant to undertake these reviews provides independence and expertise. If you have the ability to twin these feasibility studies with intrusive type 4 fire risk assessment you will ensure that retrofitting sprinklers (which is destructive) does not follow a piece of work to remediate fire stopping throughout a building.
Now you know it is physically possible to install sprinklers the system needs to be specified, the building services consultant who has been engaged to undertake feasibility studies would ordinarily generate a specification based on BS9251:2014
Step 4 – Resident engagement
Once the feasibility has been undertaken, and specification finalised the Responsible Person (RP) should embark on a journey to win the hearts and mind of the residents within each building. This process should seek to educate and inform residents all of the positive aspects of a sprinkler installation whilst also seeking reassure them of any negative aspects whether perceived or real and would ordinarily revolve around the anticipated disruption during installation and future maintenance, and indeed the way in which sprinklers operate. There is genuine misconception of the way sprinklers operate in the event of a fire, mainly due to their inaccurate portrayal in television or film, these perceptions must be addressed prior to installation. Critically it is likely that residents will be worried that installing sprinklers is necessary and that their perception of their own risk within the building will be elevated until they are installed. Unless you are installing sprinklers to mitigate a specific issue, you must ensure residents are informed that you are installing sprinklers as an ongoing commitment to improving fire safety.
Step 5 – Procure and engage
The lack of industry buy-in to retro fitting sprinklers is obvious by the lack of dedicated procurement routes to facilitate their installation. What is critical is that organisations must procure sprinklers with a higher concentration on quality than price to ensure that the systems installed are appropriately fitted, specified and maintained. Trade bodies such as BAFSA provide signposting to appropriately qualified organisations but in all cases my advice would be to procure a 3rd Party UKAS certificated organisation who is a specialist in the field of sprinkler retrofit and can provide case studies and references of a job well done. The use of existing tier 1 contractors may indeed be possible and in some cases preferable, but the insistence of competence must be the same.
Step 6 – Install
Anecdotally the time to install sprinklers retrospectively is fast. Once an organisation on site has undertaken a number of installations the ongoing installation process on a flat by flat basis will increase in its pace as the contractor understands the buildings layout and has experienced some hiccups or intricacies with the building as they install. What is critical is that as an organisation you ensure that the ongoing fire risk in the building is maintained, the fire risk assessment is reviewed during work regularly, and indeed after work is complete, and unless a resident engagement officer is provided by the contractor it would be critical to maintain a site presence organisationally to ensure that residents are listened to as the works progress. Retro fitting sprinklers is a good news story, mismanaging the installation and failing to engage with residents is a sure fire way to turn it in to a bad one.
In conclusion the driving force to retro fit sprinklers in high rise residential premises is clear and the tragic fire at Grenfell is indeed the wake-up call that has made organisations commit money to this process. Importantly, organisations must ensure that sprinklers are installed in the premises that need them first, which broadly speaking will be premises which house elderly or vulnerable persons prior to installing them in buildings on height.
The cost to install sprinklers should not be prohibitive as the residential sprinkler standard significantly reduces the infrastructure cost of a commercial system. The reduction in infrastructure requirements and the movement from steel to plastic pipe mean that impact to residents is reduced during installation.
The engagement of appropriately qualified people to assist you in the process must not be undervalued
- Building services consultants and engineers to undertake feasibility studies should not be overlooked as they form the key piece to ensure that appropriate systems are installed and do not jeopardise the premises structural integrity.
- The engagement of appropriately qualified fire consultants to undertake type 4 surveys should be considered as part of the process to install sprinklers.
- The engagement of appropriately qualified fire proofing contractors is of paramount importance to ensure that penetrations made during the install are appropriately remediated.
Lets get this right.
Tom Gilbert is Associate Director for fire risk management at Frankham RMS part of the Frankham Consultancy Group
Published January 2018
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