Yvonne Campbell, general manager of Vivalda Scotland, believes that despite the well -meaning recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt and Sir Martin Moore-Bick, architects and specifiers working in the public sector are still calling for more clarity on the issue of non-combustible, fire-tested cladding systems.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s final report on Grenfell Tower (Building a Safer Future, May 2018) was widely viewed as an opportunity missed by many in the public sector housing sector.  Moreover, this sense of disappointment was acknowledged by PM Theresa May who admitted later that month that she was minded to ban combustible cladding on all high rise buildings.

Like many, we were expecting a far clearer statement from Dame Judith, which would include banning any combustible material on tall buildings. We had also hoped to see sharper teeth when it came to independent building inspection; however this appeared to have been overlooked in favour of tighter regulations outlined in the report.

While a strong sense of direction appears to have alluded the Hackitt report, this is no reason for the social housing sector – and indeed the construction supply chain – to ignore its professional and moral responsibility.  And if the new cladding products coming onto the market are anything to go by, the industry is certainly doing its bit to develop a new generation of A2 graded products.

Vivalda Scotland operates in both the public and private sectors, which gives us a valuable perspective on trends affecting the social sector housing market. Having pioneered the supply of rainscreen facades in the private sector, working with high end residential developers such as Berkeley and Barratt as well as retailers including COS and Burberry, we have seen demand for non-combustible cladding panels grow significantly in recent years.

Peace of Mind

It is no coincidence that over the past year we have helped more architects specify the use of wholly non-flammable fibre-cement or mineral fibre claddings for their public sector projects. On the back of this increasing necessity for fireproof cladding, our business grew by 34% last year. Notably, we also saw a spike in interest for these products from several major social housing projects. We’ve also seen a marked increase in the number of test builds and prototypes for local authority housing.

However, that’s not even the full picture. While these types of product perform very highly when fire tested (achieving A2 and above – meaning it is non-combustible), we all know there is more to cladding than just the external face – facades comprise many layers including acoustic boards, thermal insulation, vital air voids and fixing systems. Cladding is a much more complex topic than first meets the eye and thus deserves a truly holistic approach.

Guidance needed 

Specifiers working on social housing projects have been faced with an unpalatable challenge in the wake of Grenfell. With underwhelming response to the Hackitt report, there has been little in the way of guidance on the safe choice of cladding. For our part, last year Vivalda  Group produced a comprehensive Fire Rating Guide, offering independent advice on fire-rated cladding systems, but this is no long-term solution. Leadership is required from the very top. Choosing an approved cladding system shouldn’t need to be so reliant on the customer doing their own research.

Widespread and comprehensive testing of all parts that go to make up complete cladding systems should be part of the solution, so should clarity and access to information for specifiers. Indeed, well known ambiguities concerning the performance of ‘non-combustible’ cladding – that appear to under-perform during full system test on a building – pose unexpected, serious questions of the manufacturers and government alike. Whatever the eventual outcome to this fire test conundrum, we need to make safety paramount, but also not onerous for those involved in recommending the right cladding solution.

The social housing sector has faced huge challenges over the last year. Understandably, architects, specifiers and contractors have all been cautious when considering which cladding system to use. Because of our long-established position in the market, we were among the first to discover that BBA, the certification body, was never actually informed by Arconic, the manufacturer of Reynobond PE cladding, that its product had failed its own safety standards, confirming the lack of clarity many had suspected.

We’re calling for a much more robust approach from the safety authorities, who should treat all proposed cladding systems as a single, integrated product; not a group of unrelated sub-components.  For this reason, we decided last year to supply only A2 and above (ie non-combustible) products to all high-rise buildings.

However, even this approach may not be enough to ensure that all newly renovated high-rise buildings are fit for purpose. While it may add time and cost to projects, we believe that full system testing should also be considered for all new and refurbishment projects over 18 metres high.

Close the equality gap

While ensuring that all homes benefit from the very best safety precautions the industry can offer, the Government renovation fund of £400m provides an opportunity for councils and social housing organisations to send a strong message to both residents and the construction sector in general; that there should be no gap in the quality of products being used on public or private housing. The Grenfell enquiry, led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has shown that there is a definite class theme running through this sorry chapter – and this funding provides us with the opportunity to change that divisive culture.

We see no reason why the private sector’s ‘quality first’ approach should not replace the widely discredited ‘value engineering’ process, which was often used in the public sector as a cost cutting tool.

Much as it turned out disastrously, the Grenfell tragedy had its roots in a desire to improve the aesthetics of high-rise, and yet the fact remains there are many excellent, attractive, fireproof products out there that would be ideal for the 158 high rise residences awaiting refurbishment.

In our view, the government needs to take a lead here – and use the £400m fund to create a best practice model for cladding system fire testing. This would involve a two stage approach which would examine first the components used and then the complete system tested in-situ. Only that way, can we be confident that the malevolent embers of Grenfell are extinguished for once and all.