02 May Implementing compliance in cladding
During 2022 FIRE Middle East featured a series written by Abhishek Chhabra, Market Development Manager, Thomas Bell-Wright Consultants, introducing compliance in passive fire protection. This year, he will continue to build on the same, aiming to act as a guide to managers and leaders alike.
If watching the videos of NEOM in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and looking at how they are drawing ‘The Line’ is getting you excited, then you need to take a couple of steps back to see the bigger picture. The era of giga-projects is what will define the region’s construction in the coming years. As engineers and architects across businesses are scuttling to work on longer on the ‘design-phase’ of projects, this is an opportune time for industry to take a better look into how (fire) compliance gets implemented.
As the UAE, who revised the Fire & Life Safety Code of practice in 2018, is considering some revisions, the Saudi Building Code which continues to drive regulatory framework decisions will also evolve in the next couple of years. While the exact boundaries of acceptance criteria may evolve, the compliance regime will always becoming stricter over time. Before delving into implementation systems let us understand the driving force behind the need for ‘Compliance’.
Fire accidents are known to occur. Humanity has all too frequently suffered and witnessed loss of life and property. We have also realised how the future changes when a fire accident happens. And one of the big shifts is the change in understanding of what was considered safe.
There is also (re)defining and (re)quantifying what is unsafe and how in the future, deterrents are redefined. These drive what was mentioned earlier, “evolving boundaries of acceptance criteria”. But the real change is driven by the defining deterrents.
As they continue to be redefined there is clearer link being established between what used to be done that can lead to a fire and what should not be done in the Future. Now the main deterrent to drive change in the future is the fear of liability.
Humanity has learnt from the past that when accidents do happen, they are caused by something that someone did (or did not do). This is a potential liability as there will be a repercussion to what someone did or did not do. Such a liability could be a repercussion of a law which is not being abided by; the liability could be a commercial repercussion which could be measured in money or fines and the potential loss of reputation too has a value attached… Often commercial.
Setting the limits
Standards and codes are used to define performance levels to create the boundaries used to set liability. To better understand how the impact on individuals and businesses is realised we need to get a quick overview of the relationships between the key stakeholders. This is defined in Image 1.
In a business environment a ‘punishment’ is (usually) either defined contractually (commercial or non-commercial repercussions) or legally (limited, but known options). These are the key deterrents which exist.
Hence means of compliance are the real tools to keep a good check on the performance of products and workmanship which, when it slips, leads to liability.
Image 1: Stakeholder relationships in Built Environment
Background to implementing cladding fire safety
What started as the structural load bearing walls more than half a century ago, today is the building envelope. It has become an engineered solution to take over the functions the walls provided: weather barriers (air, water and thermal) along with other like acoustic and ‘fire safety’.
The building envelope (façade/cladding) has its own set of specialisms: Façade Engineer, Façade Fire Engineer, Façade subcontractor, etc. This gives more room to creativity, engineering, architecture, commerce and of course, errors. An example in Image 2 is one of probably hundreds of possible ways in which a ‘building envelope system’ undertakes almost all the functions which were earlier fulfilled by walls. This shows the spread of possible suppliers and the level of detailing, engineering, and workmanship necessary to deliver what was once done by a single wall system.
Responsibility, liability & implementation ownership
Depending on the building type, the cladding could be a minor part of the project or a key element defining the project/ building. Correct implementation starts with the ‘owner’ realising that a risk of fire exists and special attention needs to be given to the building exterior. Luckily, as news of façade fires remain unabated across the world, it has started to dawn on building owners that façade fire safety is nearly as important as the structural integrity of a building. This is the really starting point which has the potential to change the fate of the façade. The importance it gets. Just like the ‘lobby’ of a hotel or some commercial buildings have a separate budget as it has the potential to create the ‘impact’ for the guest; in the same way, the possible impact of a façade fire needs to create a special attention for the building owner.
Image 2: One of countable ways of building a façade
As a railway specialist might say… If the ‘engine’ knows where to go the bogies will always fall in line. Keeping in mind the maker-checker format, let us consider the tools available for the stakeholders and how to use them effectively.
It is more likely now than in the past, that a façade fire will occur. The consideration of selecting and paying suppliers and service providers should be done based on envisioning the repercussions of an occupied building facing a cladding fire. Apart from evaluating coverage under insurance for a façade fire, the contracts with suppliers and service providers should have provisions which will prevent such a possibility. As well as provisions which define exact liability and scope of actions in case such an event occurs. Striking a balance between wants and budgetary constraints, the owners should keep in mind that the probabilities of façade fires are higher than what they used to be. Relying on the minimum regulations set in by the local government or jurisdiction (which might not be updated) may not be sufficient. The fulfillment in case of an incidence from the local jurisdiction would have limitations. This is less likely to cover the liability on reputation and commercial losses for the property owner. Hence it is recommended to use best known practices as compared with minimum local requirements.
Façade specialist/ consultant
The reputation of a business has a strong link with increasing their clients as well as a strong link with liability. A wrong decision or overlooking a matter that is critical to contract (Promise of Deliverables) will eventually lead to an instance which will lead to reputation loss and eventually loss of business. Here are some of the guiding points for a façade specialist to help minimise their liability on matters related to façade fire safety:
- Ensure related members of the (façade) specialist practice know and understand combustible materials. If not, consider engaging a fire specialist and have a contractual route to pass on the liability related to fire risk in contracts
- Ensure an updated understanding within the teams about the reaction to fire properties of : ignitability, combustibility, calorific value, flame and smoke spread.
- Understand the limitations of test reports. Test reports only prove capability of someone being able to produce a sample for a test. Test reports alone are not proof of what will be supplied.
- Understand the tools of certification and listing that provide traceability check on materials. Use this knowledge in specifications and decisions: pre-tender and post tender.
- Façades are not materials but systems. Systems designed and implemented often by different commercial entities:
- Use or call for mock-up testing evidence specific for projects to define and limit liability
- Define and link the performance of mock-ups with workmanship.
- Define liabilities of stakeholders and your own using standards used to define repeatability (see ISO series in Image 3)
- Create estimated liability value based on potential losses possible and list known stakeholders who
- Contracts: define, limit, and link your liability using assurance mechanisms of certification & listing and appropriate standards and codes.
- Your scope could be both maker and checker. If so, make sure you or your teams are equipped with the training or as sometimes needed, accreditation
- In some jurisdictions/codes like the UAE Fire & Life Safety Code and Saudi Building Code have some scope calling for Third Party Accreditation to authorise auditing.
The contractor does what the contract says. And if the contract does not say much then a lot of things could fall into default options. And hence it is important to define important aspects in the contract. And finally a point to note:
- Be careful of, aware of and keep track of local minimum requirements that could be handed over as per a legal requirement in the jurisdiction where work is being performed. As an example Decree 213 in UAE empowers the UAE Fire & Life Safety Code of Practice. This code has a chapter (18) on responsibilities of stakeholder.
- In case a contractor is not being allowed to fulfill their obligations technically or commercially, then they need to take it out of the contractual document and pass it on to someone else.
- Often, though not always, the contractor gets an approved drawing which needs to be built. Changing anything here or initiating any change brings the ownership of the efficacy of the design back to the changer/ contractor. In case these are not documented, these can become liability.
- A key worry for contractors is to maintain the workmanship. This should be addressed using regular trainings and audited regularly
- To safeguard the interests, third party independent inspection bodies are used. Sometimes, these are contracted by the main contractors or consultants. But if such inspection bodies are reporting back to the sub-contractor themselves then there is conflict of interest.
- Care must be taken to choose a qualified inspection body
Façade materials/ components suppliers
Sometimes the supplier ends up taking on more liability than needed. Often tempted by the order and its value. This is dangerous as there are limits to what the material supplier has visibility of. Specifically, on how the material could be used. Below are some of the key points of note for sellers and buyers of façade materials.
- A manufacturer or seller of material can only provide assurance of the fire performance of the material alone and not as part of a system property. This should be correctly documented and contracted.
- As an example, the calorific value or combustibility classification of a Polyurethane (PU) Foam can be assured. But not how it would behave in a given system with adjacent materials.
- In a fast-paced trade environment, keeping the raw material suppliers and manufacturing processes the same is not that easy. This is a challenge for manufacturers, but should be known to buyers correctly as well.
- In some jurisdictions like the UAE, the fire code mandates material suppliers to also submit the proof of performance of the façade component materials (Like the facia element- ACP) in a mocked-up system as well. This is done only to establish certain baseline performance. It is the responsibility of other stakeholders in given project to corelate such evidence (Like an NFPA 285 or a BS 8414 test) with that of a given project. Manufacturers should be careful not to sign-up for liability which they cannot assess.
- To safeguard the interests, third party independent conformity assessment bodies are used. They independently audit the processes and supply chain control mechanisms along with regularly assessing samples of the products to check for their performance.
- An example is the seller of a household split-air conditioning system consisting of an outdoor unit, indoor unit ( supplied by a manufacturer) and some recommended components like connecting cables, pipes etc. The performance assurances of the supplier are only valid if recommended components and an authorised installer are used. Often the warranties are also void if installers other than the ones authorised are used. Similar contractual boundaries should be contracted to define the liability of manufacturers.
Image 3 provides a graphical representation of a typical implementation plan and adds references of international standards used by regulators as well as contractors to bring about parity of performance of third-party assurance providers.
Image 3: Suggested plan for Fire Safe Façades
Risk Assessments could be under the contractual scope of Façade Specialist, a fire consultant, a contractor or someone else. And depending on the contract and who is the maker and who is the checker the tools of Testing + Certification & Listing should be correctly called for and used. Responsible contracted stakeholders should correctly understand and use mock-up test reports to asses and quantify risk. Third party inspection increases the assurance and diversifies the liability as well.
A cladding system is an assembled solution which has several stakeholders. In order for the solution to perform as committed, specifically on the fire safety side, it is imperative that there is an alignment of expectation of performance and clearly contracted responsibilities. Correctly worded and referenced standards provide the tools to complete assurance and quantifying liability. The aim is to deter actions that are (now) known to create (fire) risky situations which needed to be avoided.