A shocking investigation undertaken by BBC Watchdog Live recently revealed that a number of new build homes built by developers Persimmon and Bellway Homes are not adequately fire safe. Joe Bradbury of buildingspecifier.com investigates:


The Grenfell tragedy


Fire safety has become the hot topic of debate over the last few years, and rightfully so. The horrific fire that broke out in 24-storey Grenfell Tower in 2017 has brought it to the forefront of our attention, having caused 72 deaths and injured a further 70 others. It is considered the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War. Negligence is now being sniffed out throughout the construction industry and those responsible are being held to account.


The fire was ignited by a malfunctioning fridge-freezer located on the fourth floor. Once the fire had taken hold it spread rapidly up the building’s exterior to all the residential floors. For many, the image of the tower engulfed in flame will be painfully etched in memory for many years to come.


Notre Dame


Fire struck again in world media on the 15th April this year, with newspapers, TV screens, phones and tablets sharing apocalyptic, images of Notre Dame aflame in Paris.


Crucial renovation and restoration works were underway when an electrical short circuit happened, resulting in the roof of Notre-Dame catching fire and burning for approximately 15 hours, before being extinguished; during which time the cathedral received immense damage.


Thankfully, no one was killed. The injuries sustained were largely cultural, with Notre Dame being arguably one of man’s finest architectural achievements.


Fire in figures


There were 558,963 incidents attended by the UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) last year. Of these incidents, around 161,770 were fires. These fires resulted in 261 fatalities and 7,081 non-fatal casualties. To put that into context – for every million people in England, there were 4.7 fire-related fatalities.


Unfortunately, fires happen… and their impact can be devastating. With this in mind, it comes as a great shock to hear that many new-builds constructed by two of the largest housebuilding firms were sold last year with missing or incorrectly installed fire barriers, which functions to prohibit the spread of fire throughout a property.


Is your new build safe?


In April 2018 a fire was started by a cigarette dropped at ground level in a Persimmon-built home in Exeter. It spread up to the roof of the house and then across to other properties nearby.


This fire sparked an investigation which found missing fire barriers at 37% of homes on the Greenacres estate, where the fire had taken place. This initiated wider investigation of thousands of homes throughout the South West, where over 650 homes were found to have missing or incorrectly installed fire barriers. The investigation continues and some of those affected are yet to be rectified; many houses are still awaiting inspection.


Since the issues in the South West became known last year, Persimmon have written to 3200 home owners in the region and created a dedicated team to carry out inspections in a prompt manner.


Thus far, 2700 homes have been inspected, and remedial work has been carried out at 679 properties. The company said sample checks were also being conducted nationwide. A spokesperson for Persimmon said “this should not have happened and we would like to apologise to all affected homeowners and assure them that we are doing everything we can to rectify the issue swiftly.”


The BBC investigation also uncovered potentially dangerous fire safety issues in developments in Kent and West Lothian built by Bellway Homes.


BBC Watchdog Live sent their own expert surveyor to a new build Bellway Homes development in West Lothian, to examine the fire protection at four houses, after concerns were raised by one resident whose house had previously been found to have inadequate fire barriers.


According to an article on the BBC website, surveyor and expert witness Greig Adams, who carried out the testing, found poorly fitted fire barriers at all four properties, with voids and gaps around them that would prevent them stopping fire from spreading. He said “What we’ve unfortunately found is that there are fire breach issues in every house we’ve looked at. It’s a legal requirement that the cavity barriers are to be there. It’s not optional – and with good reason: it saves lives.”


Bellway Homes have stated that they are “committed to improvement”.


In summary


Law dictates that new build homes must implement adequate fire protection measures which meet current Building Regulations to delay the spread of fire for as long as possible to maximise chances of escape for occupants.


The unsung heroes of a project, fire barriers are an integral part of a fire protection strategy and in many new builds (particularly timber-framed buildings) the barriers form a seal between different areas of a house. Without them, experts suggest that fire and smoke can spread five to ten times faster.


It is therefore of the utmost importance that housebuilders uphold their responsibility, ensuring that all new buildings are fully compliant with current Building Regulations. It’s a matter of life and death.


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