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Addressing the lack of confidence in specifying passive fire protection together

It has been reported recently that there is a significant lack of confidence in the specification of passive fire protection systems among the A&D community. This is a major concern for Optima, as a leading light in the design, manufacture and installation of fire resistant glazing systems and we wanted to understand why this was the case and what could be done to change this worrying situation.

Optima has always believed in the power of collaboration and communication when looking to drive improvements in our industry. With a view to understanding the concerns in the sector, and to look at ways to change the narrative, we thought it best to bring together a respected selection of representatives from across the field of interest in passive fire protection and to talk the issues through.

The event was everything we hoped it would be with a wide and insightful range of views from all those involved.

Here are some of the issues discussed and the key takeaways:  

1. Join the dots – Coordinated specifications are a must

Construction products have been traditionally specified and procured in isolation. For example, the NBS specification will be produced, taking each individual product type in isolation. This then feeds into procurement by contractors through their supply chain. This is normally a perfectly  reasonable approach until we consider safety-critical products like fire resistant glazing and other passive fire protection systems. These construction products are heavily interdependent with the immediate adjacent system or product and should be specified as a complete system rather than its constituent parts. This holistic approach needs to be the foundation stone of safety in design so that it is maintained throughout the project.  

2. The clock is ticking – Allow time to design and build projects properly

Without the holistic approach, safety-critical systems get lost in the commercial procurement cycle. Too often the process of competitive tendering, although necessary, leads to late placing of orders with the result that critical interfaces are overlooked and overtaken by the progress of construction. Most passive fire protection systems, particularly fire resistant glazing, rely on the coordinated interface with the building fabric and if the walls are finished before the glazing is procured, critical construction details will be missed, putting the building and its occupiers at risk.

Early engagement with specialist sub-contractors is key. Different systems require different interface details in the wall construction and there is no generic ‘one size fits all’ solution.

3. Where does the buck stop – Who is the responsible designer?

The recent regulatory changes have imposed significant duties and responsibilities on the Principal Designer. This brings a far greater requirement for designers to have a working understanding of safety-critical systems so that they can be safely specified and integrated into the building. It is clear, and indeed the guiding inspiration for the round table event, that designers do not have that knowledge and are not confident in their specification. The same is true of contractors, especially those working in design and build.

This inevitably leads to design responsibility dripping down the supply chain with designers and contractors falling on the expertise of their specialist sub-contractors. But what if the advice being given is inaccurate? How does the project team know if it is correct? Are they equipped with enough knowledge to understand what they are being told? It cannot be taken for granted that the supplier’s advice is correct if they are a third party fabricator who may not be in possession of the system owner’s test evidence. Can you take that chance?

In many cases, the answer is no. This has to be addressed so that the responsibility for building safety rests where it should. CPD, as a means to grow technical competence, needs to be taken seriously and not seen as routine box-ticking with a free lunch and the chosen subject matter invited on a first come, first served basis. Responsible persons should be actively and urgently seeking to learn about safety-critical products from experts, like Optima, who will be happy to share their knowledge through RIBA accredited CPD.

4. The specification is King – Where is the value in value engineering?

Passive fire protection is designed into buildings for very clear, safety-critical reasons. Specific systems are chosen in the knowledge that they can do the job for which they are being specified. This knowledge will be based on the correct interface with the surrounding structure and that is tied directly to the specified system’s own fire test evidence.

Whilst competitive tendering has a valid place in procurement, it can only take place on the explicit understanding that the specification is fully maintained. Value is often achieved with lesser specifications and with safety-critical systems, that could be catastrophic. Buyers must not be tempted by an alternative supplier offering to do the job for 10 or 20% less. They must ask themselves where that saving is coming from and whether the alternative product can work with all of the design provisions made for the specified system.

5. Don’t take my word for it – Trust the evidence

Third party testing and certification is now essential in today’s fire safety conscious climate. Given that specifiers need to be sure of quality, the industry needs to focus on providing representatively tested products wherever possible, or properly accredited third party assessment where testing is not reasonably practicable.

Test evidence and assessments are very complex documents and can be difficult to understand and put into context. Nevertheless, specifiers must ensure that the products they are specifying are supported by the necessary third party credentials. Often this information is withheld on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, and this is particularly the case with European-based system houses who do not understand the UK requirements.

Safety has to come before commercial interests and specifiers must ask themselves why this information is not immediately available.

Optima is committed to full disclosure and, critically, to giving a detailed explanation of how the evidence is relevant to the specified application.

“At Optima we were appalled to read on Specification Online that a staggering 86% of building control professionals lack confidence when it comes to understanding the specifications of fire safety systems. We felt compelled to address how we rebuild that confidence and believed that by engaging with the experts and influencers in the construction industry at a roundtable event, we could gain valuable insights and feedback on how the industry needs to improve.

The roundtable brought together key voices from within the industry to discuss the current failings around fire safety and set collective goals towards a safer and cohesive approach to fire products. We firmly believe that a collaborative approach is paramount to delivering firesafe commercial buildings. It’s not just about our products; it’s about fostering a culture of shared responsibility among all stakeholders.

The insights and shared knowledge during the roundtable were invaluable, pointing towards a path of improvement. While there is much work ahead of us, I am confident that, together, we can elevate industry standards and drive significant development to ensure the safety of occupants in commercial spaces. It’s a journey we are committed to, and I look forward to the positive impact our collective efforts will have on the future of fire safety.” Explains Christian Mabey, Optima Prducts Ltd, Managing Director

“Behaviour was mentioned by several people at the Roundtable, with many of the comments and recommendations focusing on how the industry behaves. The only way we can begin to instil confidence with the industry and build fire safe commercial buildings is by addressing and altering the way we behave as individuals within an industry that carries a huge duty of care. The race to the bottom does not create itself. It is a product of poor behaviour.

Confidence is inspired by belief. I think with so many grey areas in the industry I can understand why people are sceptical or concerned. By improving the way the industry operates in relation to its behaviours around delivery, we will provide designers and specifiers with the confidence that the products they are choosing are right products to deliver compliant projects.” Discusses Gavin Skelly, Founder of Fire Aware

“The key takeaways from our roundtable underscore the need for a holistic approach, collaboration with suppliers from the outset, addressing time constraints for specifiers, clarifying responsibilities amidst regulatory changes, promoting a culture shift towards quality over cost, and emphasising third-party testing and certification.

At Optima, we ‘are no strangers to continuous improvement, and we understand the dynamic landscape of evolving regulation. Gathering feedback and initiating discussions within the industry is integral to our ethos. Moving forward, we are more enthusiastic than ever to proactively address these challenges and ensure our products provide the highest levels of fire safety.” Says Peter Long, Divisional Fire & Certification Director. 

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