Due out later this month (May 2018), the final part of the Hackitt Report into the Grenfell Tower disaster is expected to change fundamentally the construction industry’s attitude towards the design and fire safety of high rise buildings. However, the UK’s largest distributor of architectural cladding, the Vivalda Group, claims that the report will fall short unless complete systems testing is at the heart of the recommendations.

Widely expected to ban the use of combustible materials on all high-rise developments, the Hackitt Report should go one step further and ensure that complete cladding systems – including panels, insulation, and fixings – are tested as a single entity, according to Vivalda’s managing director Ben Jayes.

He said: “It’s absolutely vital that Dame Judith Hackitt’s report includes clear measures to ensure that in future cladding and facades are tested as complete systems, ideally in-situ. We understand that this will add cost to construction projects, but the industry has been adopting a ‘head in the sand’ attitude for too long when it comes to fire safety. So-called ‘value engineering’ has a lot to answer for, as this has pushed architects and contractors to drive out cost at every opportunity. And this has no doubt contributed to the construction of unsafe buildings.”

Vivalda believes that current fire protection standards are fit for purpose, but have not been effectively used. The façades specialist wants to see BS8414 cited as a central pillar of fire safety standards moving forward. Ben Jayes said: “If used appropriately, BS8414 will qualify all the components’ performance together as a system, including sheathing, carrier board, carrier sub frame system, insulation, fire barriers, breather membrane, facade material, accessories and finally facade fixings.

“Once a cladding system is tested, we’d like to see a minimum and maximum tolerance set under BS8414, which would be specific for this mix of sub-products that have been used on the working system. Once established, other tests would be required to be carried out for differing cavity requirements. Tests would also have to be redone if differing components were used to those in the approved test, meaning that it only approves those individual items when used together.”

While Vivalda is calling for system-based testing on all cladding, it is also hoping that Hackitt heralds a return of the independent district surveyor. Replacing the myriad certified testing organisations, which inevitably operate to varying quality standards, perhaps influenced by the commercial relationship between themselves and their client. Instead, genuinely independent inspectors would act under the auspices of the government, as the ultimate arbiters of a building’s quality and safety.

Jayes explains: “The privatisation of building control has simply not worked. Mixing the pursuit of profits with independent judgement was never a good idea and the government needs to step in here to fix the problem.”

Finally, Vivalda is calling for the industry to take ownership of the Hackitt report, implementing and supporting recommendations in both spirit and action. Jayes said: “This is such a critical moment for the industry, we can’t afford to just read Dame Judith’s recommendations and put them back on the shelf to gather dust. We all need to engage with the report, take responsibility and ensure that as an industry we are answerable to both our clients and ultimately residents when it comes to fire safety.”

Vivalda works with architects, specifiers and contractors, providing a range of aluminium composite and natural rainscreen cladding products, including fibre cement and HPL (high pressure laminates). The business is the largest independent fabricator / distributor of facades in the UK, operating from eight locations.

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