Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

TUESDAY 20 JULY 1999

MR PETER FIELD, MR TONY MORRIS, MS SARAH COLWELL AND MR MARTYN RICH

Mr Gray

  40. You conducted this research after the Knowsley Heights fire, what broadly were the conclusions you came to about the risk of spread?
  (Mr Field) There were several issues arising from the research. First of all, the research reconfirmed the already known phenomenon that fire can break out of a room and can extend up the outside of a building, regardless of the nature of the fabric; and it can do so and involve floors immediately above. The work we undertook basically involved looking at complete systems at full-scale. That is a fundamentally important issue. It is important also to look at the total systems. The work basically has arrived at the situation where we have developed a performance criteria which essentially can discriminate fire performance of cladding systems; and, at the end of the day, this can be utilised by the regulators to determine whether or not such a method and such a criteria is appropriate for incorporating into the Regulations. The test method which has been published—

  41. Before you go on to the solution, as it were, I want to be clear on your view about the risk. Do you think this really is a risk? Is there a problem here?
  (Mr Field) Are we talking about the current building stock?

  42. Yes.
  (Mr Field) With the current building stock, as we have already heard, no-one really knows what is outside there in the actual building stock. Knowsley Heights was one incident. There have been a small number of incidents. Therefore, one has to balance the risks against the likelihood of fires occurring. Secondly, we have to look at the issues relating to the ability for people to escape from fires if and when they occur. I would perhaps suggest the evidence so far would suggest the risk is not too significant compared with living one's ordinary life.

  43. You think it is more theoretical than real?
  (Mr Field) One would not go that far. Clearly there is a risk, but whether the risk is a significant one I think is debatable.

  44. If that is right, do the current Regulations do enough to minimise that risk, or could more be done regarding performance criteria?
  (Mr Field) This is obviously a matter for the Department who frame the Regulations.

  45. You advise the Department, surely?
  (Mr Field) Yes.

  46. We are asking you what your advice is going to be?
  (Mr Field) We believe that the current Regulations and the guidance given in Approved Document B, first of all, state that the building envelope should not provide a medium for fire spread, which increases or poses a threat to life safety. That is a fundamental issue. We are not talking here about the ability of the envelope to burn; we are talking about the threat to life safety. In considering life safety we have to consider the time available for escape, the means of escape and obviously the attendance time of the fire service. There have also been issues referred to already relating to the Class `0' system of fire spread, which is basically a material based system of classification. I think there are some circumstances whereby utilising that of itself would not adequately identify the fire performance of a complete system. The other issue in the Regulations is that, there is also guidance given on the provision for cavity fire barriers. What our test method does is adds to this body of guidance. I do not think the guidance that is currently there should be ignored completely. It is far from being totally adequate. We think the tests add to the current guidance which is likely to be available.

Mr Donohoe

  47. Could you just tell us what test method you adopted?
  (Mr Field) Basically the test method involves a facade of a building which goes up to some 10 metres in height—

Mr Gray

  48. 10 metres?
  (Mr Field) Yes, 33-35 feet.—which is therefore capable of looking at a fire developing from a room and expanding up the outside of a building and extending to some three floors above the actual seat of the fire. It is only in those circumstances where we believe a total systems performance can be identified and looked at.

Mr Donohoe

  49. That is what you would do in terms of the tests of all materials likely to be used?
  (Mr Field) Yes. This is basically a test method for external cladding systems. It is done at full-scale deliberately because, as has been said earlier, there is some question over some of the small-scale testing.

  50. What has been the results of those? If you were to adopt a similar situation as the one in Irvine, for instance, what was the result of those tests?
  (Mr Field) We have not looked at systems which allegedly have been used in Irvine.

  51. Why not?
  (Mr Field) We understand they involved a window replacement decorative panel system. We have not looked at that specifically. The focus of research was purely and simply on total cladding systems which, by and large, are the large majority of systems used in the UK.

  52. Given that it is on these blocks of flats in Irvine, why have you not had certain tests; it must be quite simple?
  (Mr Field) It certainly could be tested but we have not been asked to do so by anybody at this moment in time. There is no problem in actually looking at those systems in this test facility.

  53. Do you think in the circumstances all forms of cladding should be tested by you?
  (Mr Field) It would certainly make sense to have the cladding systems tested in a properly defined test method, of which we believe this is one.

  54. Have you got to be asked to do any testing?
  (Mr Field) We are a private sector organisation; we are not part of government. Clearly, in days gone by, when we were part of DoE then this work was done and would have been done in the public interest without the need for formal contract. One regrets there are now commercial pressures that require clients to place formal contracts with us before we can undertake work.

  55. Do you think that is something that is fundamentally flawed in terms of the positioning; it must be, surely?
  (Mr Field) I think in fairness to the Department, we do have a dialogue with them and we do seek to take forward issues of concern. In fairness to them they did speak to us immediately after the Knowsley fire. Out of that came initial research which led to the research project which was funded jointly by the Department and industry to develop this particular test method.

  56. After the Irvine fire, similarly the Department asked you to test?
  (Mr Field) The Department have already been in contact with us about the related issues of the Irvine fire. They have already indicated to us they might be looking to us to provide new guidance with respect to what might follow on. They have also indicated they are considering the adoption of a test method as part of their revision of the Approved Document.[13]

  57. I want to press you on this. What was the timescale after the Knowsley fire?
  (Mr Field) The Knowsley fire I think started in 1991. Research was started by the Department immediately after that.

  58. What do you mean by "immediately"? Weeks? Months?
  (Mr Field) We had discussions with the Department within weeks of the fire occurring. You must appreciate that one has to undertake a survey of the circumstances surrounding any fire and look at associated issues before coming up with a plan for a research programme which would lead to an objective resolution.

  59. Surely the Department itself should adopt almost a mandatory position as far as all of those claddings are concerned?
  (Mr Field) This is a matter for them, I would suggest.


13   Note by witness: The Department have not asked FRS to undertake tests following the Irvine fire. Back


 
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