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Fire & Certifications Director, Peter Long highlights why specifying a futureproof, fire safe office space is more relevant than ever

The Building Safety Act and the Fire Safety Act are, without a doubt, prompting significant, positive changes to the building industry’s quality and approval processes. Although the legislation’s initial focus is on high-rise residential buildings, its scope is expected to eventually encompass the entire built environment. So, specifiers should anticipate a slew of secondary legislation that will truly redefine the regulatory landscape, improving fire safety provision in hotels, hospitals, and commercial offices.

My biggest concern is that commercial real estate professionals might be unprepared for the new standards’ increased compliance requirements. New requirements for competency, collaboration, and digitally presenting joined-up information will inevitably be imposed on architects, building inspectors, owners, and construction product manufacturers.

Unfortunately, current commercial building fire regulations are still lenient. There’s confusion regarding what constitutes proper fire safety system management, as well as how to prepare for new and improved building and fire safety standards when they come into effect.

It’s easy to be complacent but thinking that ‘it’ll never happen to me’ is an incredibly risky attitude, so contractors, asset owners, and facility managers all need to get on board with the legislative programme as soon as possible.

The specification of office interiors, coupled with ongoing inspections and a solid grasp of fire safety ratings for things like interior doors, panels, and office partitions, will undoubtedly become more challenging going forward. However, it’s no excuse to leave these systems unaddressed, both from a financial and human cost.

In order to future-proof and ensure occupant safety, I suggest going above and beyond current building norms when specifying materials for commercial office interiors and above all, taking a holistic approach to compartmentation. All the individual elements must be compatible and be demonstrated through evidence to work together, not just in isolation.

How Grenfell shaped today’s industry

Grenfell was a wake-up call, particularly for building product manufacturers and those working in fire safety systems provision, testing and inspection. Many arrogantly thought their products were safe and properly tested in accordance with the prescribed standards, as did those specifying them.

However, this horrible event forced the industry to review many traditional processes, particularly the effectiveness, adequacy, and relevance of material fire-testing and certification, as well as the promises made about product performance in marketing materials. Thankfully, this re-evaluation, which uncovered several not-fit-for-purpose aspects of the specification process, resulted in a complete cultural transformation.

Fundamentally, not enough questions were being asked before Grenfell. Now, we’re auditing everything and asking ourselves if we’re specifying correctly: What’s the risk? How might that danger be mitigated?

Six years later, the interpretation of evidence, whether it comes from a direct fire test or a third-party assessment, has significantly improved. Manufacturers are reconsidering the accuracy of product information in accordance with post-Grenfell thinking. Specifiers are paying closer attention to the evidence used to support material and application claims.

In addition to the testing procedures, test evidence suitability for a particular application is now being examined in great detail. The critical query now raised is: “Does this test adequately reflect the real-world effect?”

Unfortunately, the ability to deliver on these questions falls short of the best of plans. Testing facilities are currently overcrowded due to the growing need for test evidence of fire resistance, which has led to much longer wait times. The scale of architectural expectation often exceeds the capacity of conventional testing facilities. In order to give evaluations, which are now closely tied to the results of relevant fire tests, more evidence must be gathered, and in-depth analysis is required.

The process as a whole has become more complex, reducing efficiency, which will need to be addressed as construction output increases.

R&D cultivates innovation

Fortunately, solutions are within reach, thanks to considerable improvements in the creation of fire-safe goods and materials across the industry.

As suppliers collaborate closer with designers and fire regulatory organisations, more and more projects are being specified with completely customised fire-rated systems, rather than just installing on a one-size-fits all basis.

Numerous built environment organisations are now anticipating an increasing demand for bespoke solutions and are investing in R&D to develop innovative systems which keep people safe.

As a result, there’s a commitment to creating the highest-quality fire solutions, which translates into safer, higher-performance products, as well as additional testing and enhancements for applications not already covered by existing technologies.

Expertise and training are essential

It’s crucial to understand that using fire-rated products and materials does not automatically make the space fire-safe. To achieve a systems-based approach, you must ensure the installation and risk analysis of fire-rated goods are routinely monitored after the facility is up and running.

A fire-rated product’s integrity might be compromised by even the smallest adjustment, such as modifying a glass door’s opening mechanism. To guarantee the product being described is specified properly, it’s essential to fully understand all its features. As a result, both specifiers and office building managers need to undertake intensive training and CPD.

From my own perspective, using a standard example, the latest high-performance glass doors used in workplaces today are specialised pieces of fire rated technology, operating quite differently from other glass partitions or doors. Therefore, it is essential to continue developing our understanding of fire protection through education and CPD.

Keeping design in mind

Another key challenge we face is adding fire-safe components to a space while maintaining compliance, but without sacrificing its visual appeal.

Designers increasingly seek to open up spaces to bring in natural light and foster a sense of wellbeing for occupants. As a result, walls that would have previously been solid are now specified in glass. Large panels of glass that exceed the capacity of fire test facilities must thus be put within a bespoke system and handled carefully. To determine what may be assessed from the test evidence presented, close coordination with certification authorities is required.

Of course, offices need to be fire safe, look appealing, and feel comfortable to work in. A challenge we face is the sheer complexity of day-to-day office operations. Aesthetics are a criteria that is frequently added to the fire resistance of fire doors. However, it is often the case that suitable certified hardware is just non-existent.

Can beautiful design and fire safety coexist in an office setting? Absolutely, yes. The latest glass partitioning systems and sliding doors, adaptable meeting rooms and acoustically enhanced walls can all be fire-safety enhanced sustainably, whilst also becoming an attractive interior feature. Many glass office partition solutions allow for the free passage of air and natural light, which enhances worker well-being and increases productivity.

I truly believe that design and fire safety can coexist in the workplace, but effectively managing expectations is key.

Because fire safety is of the highest importance, I’m certain the commercial office industry will catch up with fire safety standards, testing and reporting regimes, and continuous compliance as the requirements tighten.

Thankfully, amazing fire-resistant office solutions are now available and are designed for security, adaptability, and aesthetic appeal.

About the Author

Fire and Certifications Director, Peter Long

Peter Long is our Fire and Certifications Director and is dedicated to promoting accurate and responsible product marketing, and it is his mission to raise industry standards in all facets of the glazed partitioning sector. For more than 20 years, he has been a member of the Optima Group, where he oversees the technical support staff at Optima and is in charge of testing and certifying our whole product range, with a special emphasis on fire rated equipment.

He believes it is our duty as an industry to provide adequately established specifications and to uphold those standards throughout the entire project cycle, including design, production, and installation. Peter makes it his business to be very familiar with Optima’s products, offering clients complete confidence in the outcome.

He is excited to continue the drive for improved construction standards and higher levels of competency with like-minded individuals now that he has been admitted as a member of the Institute of Construction Management.

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