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High Rise, High Risk? Navigating the New Era of Tall Buildings

5 min read
May 31, 2024 11:04:06 AM

The shadow of the Grenfell Tower tragedy looms large, and a new chapter has unfolded in the narrative of building safety and compliance. The introduction of the Higher Risk Buildings legislation marks a watershed moment, well-intentioned and aimed squarely at safeguarding lives and upholding the integrity of our structures. Yet, this push towards enhanced safety brings with it a complex set of challenges for office occupiers and fit-out firms.

Navigating this landscape requires a delicate balance between adhering to stringent regulations and managing the practicalities of timelines, costs and occupation. As we adapt to these changes, it's crucial for tenants, landlords, and industry professionals alike to engage in open dialogue and collaboration. We certainly don’t want tenants to shy away from space that requires compliance, and the fear from some quarters is that value may be negatively impacted.

However we do want to ensure that the spaces we inhabit are safe, not just today but in the long term.

It’s a delicate balancing act.

The Tragedy of Grenfell

The devastating Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 has had a lasting impact on building regulations, highlighting the severe consequences of neglecting safety measures. This catastrophic event led to a significant loss of life and destruction of property, prompting a widespread rethinking of current building legislation.

In response, there has been a heightened focus on improving fire safety protocols for high-rise buildings. The aftermath of Grenfell has spurred comprehensive reforms designed to avert such disasters in the future. This tragedy has united stakeholders in a common goal: to revise building laws to better protect the safety and welfare of occupiers, marking the Grenfell Tower fire as a tragic yet crucial turning point in advancing the safety standards of both residential and commercial property.

The Building Act 2022

This new legislation has created a new class of building known as a Higher Risk Building, or HRB.

Part 3 of the Act defines HRBs as buildings with a top floor level of 18 metres in height from the ground floor level, or have at least seven storeys, containing two or more residential dwellings.

Crucially, a building meets the HRB criteria if the above elements qualify, and the residential and commercial space share an entrance and/or a fire escape staircase.

From October 2023, the approval for all building works has fallen under the jurisdiction of the Building Safety Regulator, who themselves are part of the Health & Safety Executive.

The legislation introduces significant updates to building regulations, particularly focusing on High-Risk Buildings (HRBs). It primarily aims to enhance safety and quality standards for buildings identified as high risk. Key aspects of the Act concerning HRBs include:

  • Stricter Safety Standards: It establishes more rigorous safety requirements for the design, construction, and maintenance of HRBs to prevent accidents and enhance occupier safety.
  • Greater Accountability: The Act places more responsibility on builders, developers, and landlords, ensuring they comply with the enhanced safety standards. This includes clear accountability for safety during the entire lifespan of the building.
  • Increased Oversight and Inspection: There is a significant emphasis on regular inspections and oversight of HRBs, with mechanisms in place for continuous monitoring and assessment to ensure ongoing compliance with safety standards.
  • Occupier Engagement: The legislation encourages greater involvement of occupiers in the safety processes, including mechanisms for reporting concerns and ensuring those concerns are addressed in a timely manner.
  • Certification and Compliance: HRBs are required to obtain specific certifications at various stages of their lifecycle, from design and construction to occupation, ensuring continuous compliance with the established standards.


Increased Responsibility on Owners & Landlords

The act puts increased responsibility on anyone wanting to instruct works in a newly-designated HRB and they must be satisfied - and sign a declaration to that effect - that they have employed competent people to fulfil the roles of Principal Designer and Principal Contractor. In addition, all other parties to the works are liable to ensure everything they do conforms to the designs and are expected to raise concerns if they are not, or don’t appear to be.

This consultation process will also be administered by the local Fire Authority.

The HRB Submission

For an HRB submission to be considered successful, it must meet requirements that are more rigorous than what an Approved Inspector would typically require for conditional approval of construction projects.

It is crucial for the developer to make early decisions regarding the layout of partitions and the selection of finishes. These decisions directly impact factors such as escape routes, the effectiveness of both passive and active fire protection systems, and the compliance with regulations regarding the spread of flame for all wall and ceiling finishes.

Following a successful application, the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) will evaluate the submission and make a determination on whether the proposed plans meet the necessary safety standards.

If the submission is successful, work can start. Once the work is complete, the BSR needs to be informed and will come on site to inspect all certificates, drawings, the emergency file, and the O&M files.

Upon reviewing the construction works and related documentation, if the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) determines that the project adheres to the specified requirements, they will grant a completion certificate, permitting the developer to occupy the premises.

Time is of the Essence

The new Higher Risk Building (HRB) legislation generally aims to improve building safety and quality, particularly for buildings that are considered to be at higher risk due to their height, use, or occupancy levels. The impact of such legislation on the development of commercial property can be significant, especially in terms of compliance, project timelines, and costs.

1. Increased Planning & Design Phase

Compliance Requirements: Developers will need to ensure that building designs meet the stringent safety standards set out in the HRB legislation. This may require additional time in the planning and design phase to consult with architects, engineers, and building safety experts.

Approval Processes: There might be more rigorous approval processes in place, with detailed scrutiny of the building plans by the authorities to ensure compliance with the HRB legislation. This could lead to longer wait times for approvals.

2. Enhanced Materials & Construction Standards

Quality of Materials: The legislation may specify the use of higher-quality or specific materials that are deemed safer or more resilient, which could require more time to source and could impact the overall project timeline.

Construction Practices: Stricter construction practices may be mandated, including more frequent inspections and adherence to advanced safety protocols. This could slow down the construction phase due to the additional oversight and potentially more complex building techniques.

3. Additional Inspections & Certification

Inspection Frequency: Projects may be subject to more frequent inspections by building control bodies to ensure ongoing compliance with the HRB legislation. This can add delays if issues are found that require rectification.

Certification Requirements: Before a building can be occupied, obtaining certifications indicating compliance with HRB legislation might involve additional steps or documentation, extending the timeline.

4. Impact on Project Timeline

The cumulative effect of these factors is likely to be an extension of the project timeline. Early estimates suggest that projects could see an increase in time to completion ranging from several months to potentially over a year, depending on the size, complexity of the project, and how drastically the HRB legislation alters existing practices.

5. Cost Implications

Direct Costs: The need for higher-quality materials, more detailed planning and design work, and possibly more expensive labour (due to the specialised skills required for compliance) will directly increase project costs.

Indirect Costs: Delays in project timelines can lead to increased holding costs, such as interest payments and lost rental income, further affecting the project's financial viability.

While the Higher Risk Building legislation is designed to enhance safety and quality in building construction, it does come with significant implications for the development of commercial property, particularly in terms of added time and costs.

Developers and investors will need to carefully consider these factors in their project planning and financial projections. For the most current and detailed information, consulting the specific legislation and guidelines, as well as seeking advice from legal and building professionals, is advisable.

For more information, and to discuss the cost and timeline implications for commercial projects, please contact Greg Porter on 020 7629 1088 or email gregory.porter@bdgsp.co.uk.

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