In response to major concerns that combustible cladding is not explicitly banned under statute, the Department of Finance (DoF) considers that in addition to longer term reform, there is scope for action in relation to external fire spread in Northern Ireland.
In this insight we summarise the current public consultation around amendments to the Building Regulations in Northern Ireland in light of the guidance which already exists in England and Wales regarding cladding on high-rise buildings.
The Department of Finance is seeking views on the proposed changes to the current Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 (as amended) (the Building Regulations) and associated technical guidance.
Since the Grenfell fire tragedy, there has been much concern about fire safety and combustibility of materials used on high rise buildings, and whether compliance with the Building Regulations requirements offers the reassurance required. In England, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) have published a series of Advice Notes since the tragedy, crucially Advice Note 14 which was published in December 2018 (this has been updated by Advice Note 20, published in January of this year). Advice Note 14 indicated that to be considered ‘safe’, external wall systems should have achieved BR135 classification, meaning that a BS8414 test would have to have been passed. Following the publication of Advice Note 14, many mortgage lenders commenced seeking certification particularly in new developments that the external wall systems used in new developments would meet the requirements of Advice Note 14, including in respect of developments in NI where the Advice Note was not applicable.
While the English guidance and MHCLG advice notes are not applicable in NI, the statutory guidance in NI does not offer alternative approaches of testing compliance in relation to external fire spread, and there have been calls for updated statutory guidance to close this gap and clarify the position for developers and buyers alike.
In a recently opened consultation, DoF is giving the public an opportunity to express views on the following amendments to the existing statutory guidance:
a) the use of non-combustible and limited combustibility products in external walls on certain types of buildings;
b) guidance on using the British Standard BS 8414 test to demonstrate compliance in relation to external fire spread;
c) guidance on assessments in lieu of tests to demonstrate compliance in relation to external fire spread.
Amendments to the Building Regulations
The proposals will require relevant buildings, with an 18m floor height, to have specified materials in the external walls, namely materials of European Classification A2-s1, d0 or A1, classified in accordance with BS EN 13501-1: 2018.
The effective ban of combustible building materials will be focused on buildings where the risks are greatest, however, an exemption list is proposed for when there is no practical alternative to using particular materials and when the risk of external fire spread is so minimal that such a ban would be disproportionate. Such components include cavity trays for certain situations, seals, gaskets, fixings, sealants, backer rods, doors, frames, windows and associated glass.
The new requirement to ban the use of combustible materials on certain buildings will apply through a material change of use. A material change of use for the purposes of the Regulations is proposed to include certain changes of use for planning purposes (such as a change to use for residential purposes of a building which was not previously residential, change of a non-office building to office use, or change of a non-retail building to retail use). It also includes an increase in the number of dwellings in a building. This could have implications in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic as urban centres are remodelled and regenerated, for example if redevelopment of office buildings to residential is considered, particularly as the Regulations would still apply when there is a material change of use to part of a building. Where a building through a material change of use becomes a ‘relevant building’ as defined by the Building Regulations, and the walls contain combustible material, the material will need to be replaced.
The height threshold and types of buildings are among the issues DoF welcome responses on. The proposals apply to residential buildings, hospitals, residential schools, care homes and student accommodation over 18m but hostels are hotels are currently excluded.
Consultation opened: August 2020
Consultation closes: 9 October 2020, 4pm
Responses are being collected electronically via [email protected], but email or hard copy responses are also being accepted. A link to the consultation can be found here.
The proposals ultimately bridge the gap between NI and the rest of the UK and the changes should make it easier to comply with the Building Regulations by making the routes to compliance clearer. However, given the practical implications of the changes, which will need to be factored into development proposals along with increased costs of replacement of cladding and testing of materials considered, now is the time to shape the proposals by responding to the consultation.
Our Real Estate team can advise on all aspects of site acquisition, planning, construction and disposal of developments of commercial and residential buildings in Northern Ireland.