Exclusive: Why digital adoption is helping improve fire safety in construction in the UK

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Lee Jones, Head of Manufacturing Solutions at NBS, discusses how digital adoption is helping improve fire safety in construction in the UK

As the details of the Building Safety Bill continue to be debated in Parliament, one area that is consistently improving standards within fire safety is the uptake of digital construction. But what can a digital approach offer and how can it help raise the bar to ensure occupants remain safe?

The construction industry currently finds itself in a state of flux. Following recent events, fire safety is a number one concern, yet the sector continues to see widespread problems in this area. Only recently, we saw reports that one in five studios and B&Bs in London have been deemed to be unsafe with 72% of cases relating to fire safety.

Yet hope is on the horizon, and following Dame Judith Hackitt’s review into building regulations and fire safety back in May 2018, the industry is now on a path to ensure greater fail-safes and a requirement for what Hackitt termed ‘The Golden Thread’ of information. The Golden Thread being ‘both the information that allows you to understand a building and the steps needed to keep both the building and people safe, now and in the future’. Only by having these systems in place can the industry then claw back occupant confidence and deliver full transparency and accountability on building practices.

Yet along with reform, such as the introduction of a building safety regulator and a construction product regulator, other methods are also helping the industry raise its game, one of which is the digitising of the construction industry.

The demand for digital

One of the main benefits to working digitally, is that for specifiers, contractors and residents they have the ability to access extensive datasets on safety critical products. This feature plays a huge role in guaranteeing the safety of buildings and end users by supplying them with the most up-to-date information. If the industry is to iron-out the risk of products being ‘mis-specified’, then architects must be given a vehicle to access this information as easily as possible.

The RIBA Plan of Work, which is regarded by many as the ‘industry blueprint’ for the construction process has also embraced digital. For example, Part three of the overview document covers ‘Changing Processes’ and includes guidance on how digital tools can shift the balance away from 2D information towards 3D and data. It shows the direction the industry is heading – digital site surveys are also becoming the norm, using cloud surveys, photogrammetry, lidar, and the ability to mount cameras on drones, to help with the success of projects.

BIM leads the way

We also know that the digitisation of the sector is being well received within the construction community with positivity. In NBS’ 2021 Digital Construction Report, it found that 80% of respondents think adoption of digital technologies is delivering a better built environment. A further 78% also agreed that the sector needs to be working digitally if its to play its part in realising the golden thread of information.

Feeding into this is also the greater use of BIM (Building Information Modelling). This digital approach can be used to improve the design, construction and operation of buildings, making them safer for end users. Again, it’s a concept that has been around for some time but the recent shift in perception of BIM has allowed this way of working to flourish, with three quarters of specifiers now using BIM compared to just one in ten a decade ago.

Inspections on-site

No matter how well designed, the final piece of the puzzle remains with how the build is produced on site. Is proper due care being given to fire safety inspection and how can site staff be sure that the building is true to its original specification? Digital project management tools are also helping in this area. For site managers, or those in charge of building quality and control, the introduction of tools that digitally log when work has been carried out has been a game changer. Today’s app and tools also feature the ability to send photos and videos, for even greater peace of mind that fire safety has been prioritised. It’s likely we’ll see more requests of this sort occupants as knowledge around fire safety on-site increases.

We’ve heard the Government talk in depth at how it plans to ‘Build Back Better’ and by looking at evidence, we can see that a continued investment in digital construction will be a big part of the answer to make this possible. What’s now needed is urgency – both in parliament and in the wider sector so that we can ensure improvements are made as quickly as possible.

This article was originally published in the June edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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