How New Build Homes Are Designed To Withstand The Full Impact Of A Fire.

Everything you need to know.

Flats have been a feature of the British landscape since Victorian times, and were seen as a revolutionary way of solving the country’s housing needs. Following both world wars however, the demand for affordable housing increased and the 1940’s and 50’s saw the construction of purpose built blocks of flats in greater numbers. Fast forward a few years to the 1960’s and the construction of high rise blocks in particular were starting to dominate the skylines of cities up and down the country. 
 
With most fires occurring in domestic dwellings, it has been recognised for some time that blocks of flats containing a number of homes have the potential to pose a greater risk. Indeed, a fire starting and spreading in the home is undoubtedly the worst nightmare of any homeowner. A fire has the potential to cause thousands of pounds worth of damage, but more seriously, lives can be lost, with the recent fire at the Grenfell Tower block in Kensington serving as a stark reminder. 
 
In light of such events, it’s worth giving some thought to how new build homes - blocks of flat in particular - are designed to withstand the full impact of a fire...

Fire Safety Measures In New Build Homes -  New Home Finder
 

Alerting Residents To A Fire

 
One of the most obvious ways of alerting residents to a potential fire within a property is through the installation of smoke detectors, and they have been mandatory since 1992. There are three common types of fire detectors which are listed here. 
 
Firstly, there are ionisation detectors, which are the are the most common kind. They are able to sense small particles of smoke, useful for alerting residents to a fire before the smoke can become too thick and be a hinderance to evacuation efforts. 

Also available are optical detectors, which are able to detect larger particles of smoke which are produced from slow burning fires. 

Finally, there are heat sensors and these are triggered when temperatures in the property start to reach that of around 55°C.
 
Regardless of which detector is installed within the property however, a few things are key. Smoke detectors must be interconnected, meaning should one go off in the property, all other smoke detectors will quickly follow suit. They must also be mains operated, with a battery backup in place as a fail safe. One benefit of smoke alarm systems is that whilst mandatory in new properties, they can also be installed into older properties without too much difficulty both within communal areas such as the stairways and corridors, but also within the flats themselves. 
 

Means Of Escape

 
New builds must have what is referred to as a means of escape in place. Since 2002 it has been a requirement that all new builds have an escape window in all habitable rooms, something which is relatively easy to provide in one and two storey homes. For one storey homes, such as a new build bungalows for example, each room - excluding the kitchen -  should open directly into a hall which leads to an exit or be provided with a window that can be used as a means of exit. 
 
Things start to get more tricky however with increasing height, and therefore blocks of flats must work around the fact that residents on higher floors cannot escape from open windows as it poses too much of a risk. Therefore in blocks of flats there should be a clear escape route/routes.
 
These escape routes have to be protected, and therefore be enclosed in a fire resistant construction and strictly kept clear of any flammable materials and sources of ignition. They must also be provided with emergency lighting, so that in the event of a fire residents are able to navigate their way safely through the building. This is less of a consideration in smaller blocks of flats - typically those which are only two storeys - as sufficient light can be borrowed from sources such as streetlights. Within stairways there must also be appropriate ventilation, 
either through opening windows or a ventilation system. 
 

Compartmentalisation 

 
Within blocks of flats there should also be correct compartmentalisation. A compartment simply refers to an area within the building that is constructed of walls and floors that will resist the passage of fire throughout the building for a certain amount of time. All flats within a new block of flats should be built in this manner. The theory behind compartmentalisation within flats is that a fire would be isolated to one flat should a fire occur and that the chances of it spreading to other flats would be greatly minimised. It also increases the likelihood that those living in flats remote from the fire, for example several floors away from the outbreak of the fire, would be able to stay in their apartments. This is referred to as the ‘stay put’ principle, something which continues to underpin how flats are designed today. 
 

Doors

 
Within flats, the front doors to all properties have to be self-closing as well as fire resistant. The corridors to stairways, and the stairways themselves, also have to be fire resistant in their construction. Furthermore, any rooms opening onto a communal escape corridor must also have doors in place that are fire resistant, self-closing or doors which are kept locked. 
 

Other Measures - Water Sprinklers

 
One means of combatting fires which break out in residential properties - or any other property for that matter - is to install sprinklers. As of the 1st January 2016, all new builds including houses and flats, student accommodation, care homes and sheltered housing in Wales must be installed with a fire suppression system. Sprinkler systems help to save lives in the event of a fire, reduce fire - and water - damage to a property and also help to reduce the severity of burns and injuries sustained.
 
There are many who would like to see the rest of the UK follow suit, however it must be acknowledged that there is a cost involved in installing all new properties with a sprinkler system. Building new homes is already an expensive endeavour, and installing sprinklers has the potential to easily add 2-3% onto the final build cost. However the installation of sprinkler systems was found to be cost effective in new build care homes and halls of residence and it was only in single occupancy homes where it was not found to be cost effective. However, the likes of the European Fire Sprinkler Network believe the costs will ultimately reduce as has happened already in other countries where similar legislation has been introduced. 
 

Going Forward 

 
With some legislation having only been introduced in relatively recent times, such as the fire safety order of 2005 (FSO) which brought the common areas within flats into mainstream fire safety for the first time - many of the existing blocks of flats have already stood for decades without such legislation ever existing, and thereby never factored into their construction. So whilst new builds can incorporate such legislation into their design and build, those which already exist and have done so for many years face a greater challenge. There have been varying outcomes from the likes of the FSO, and in some existing flats much work has been done to bring the common areas within flats up to standards that are ultimately in keeping with the current legislation.

However in other properties, little has been done. Many accept that it is wholly inappropriate to impose current guidelines for the construction of new flat blocks onto existing ones, however what is encouraged is that the new legislation be used as a benchmark in which older properties be compared. One of the considerations which has to be given to older properties is just how far removed their original standards of fire safety are from what is acceptable today. 
 
For those living in older blocks of flats, it is important to recognise that steps can be taken to bring properties which may fall short of current safety standards up to an acceptable standard. For example, smoke alarm systems can be installed as previously mentioned. Whilst installing sprinkler systems may prove to be more complicated and costly, it by no means falls out of the scope of fire safety measures in existing blocks of flats. Just recently in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Birmingham city council has taken the decision to install all 213 of its tower blocks with sprinkler systems. You can read more here
 
 
For those who are looking to a buy a home in new build apartments however, these are just some of the things you can be looking out for in your new property. 
 
•    A fire detection system
•    Fire resistant doors
•    Self closing doors
•    A dedicated means of escape - with good lighting and ventilation 
 
And for the things you can’t see - such as the construction of walls and floors - don’t be afraid to ask. 
 

Publish date: 27/06/2017