Law and Manners: Navigating the evolving UK Building Regulations

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William Makant, Co-founder and CEO of Plumis, delves into the evolving UK Building Regulations, highlighting the balance between law and architectural freedom

There has been no lack of debate about how UK Building Regulations need overhauling to address the long-standing failings of the sector.

The new regulatory regime that came into force  late last year has stirred that debate further.

The question is whether we should be governed by a prescriptive or performance-based system and investigates how a speech from 1910 by Lord Moulton resonates with the issues surrounding today’s UK Building Regulations.  

Historical contexts

In his speech, entitled Law and Manners, Lord Moulton, Minister of Munitions at the outbreak of the First World War, stated that law must exist, but that free choice should also be valued as “this is where spontaneity, originality and energy are born.”  

Presently, the UK performance-based Building Regulations finds itself within this realm of ‘law with freedom’.  Despite an abundance of guidance documents, those designing fire safety and the construction of new buildings do have the freedom to use their expertise and experience, tailoring solutions to the unique demands of individual projects.

The problem is that the proliferation of prescriptive guidance has led to a pervasive mindset, wherein individuals perceive any such guidance as immutable law, constraining themselves and their projects to mere compliance with minimum practices, rather than embracing solutions which best suit the building and its occupancy.  

Guidance treated as law 

Voluntary guidance in the form of Approved Documents, for example Fire Safety: Approved Document B, (ADB), was initially conceived with the good intention to be used as guidance for the minority of buildings where there is limited design complexity, the “vanilla approach”.

In reality this prescriptive guidance is treated as inflexible law inadvertently compelling fire professionals to shoehorn every project, however complex, into the narrow confines of ADB.

As Jose Torero points out, one of the main criticisms of the system identified in Dame Judith Hackitt’s review following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower was that Approved Documents were incorrectly treated as rules and applied inappropriately, and yet government decisions since Grenfell have, paradoxically and confusingly, introduced prescriptive regulations on top of prescriptive guidance.

Lobbyists further exacerbate the situation by championing voluntary guidance as de facto law, stifling competition and compromising the very performance-based system Lord Moulton championed for its promotion of originality and evolution.  

As a manufacturer of innovative fire suppression products, we have the scars to show that too often specifiers and approvers adhere rigidly to ADB despite overwhelming evidence of suppression performance, designed strictly with the objective to meet the legal performance requirements in B1, B3 and B5.

An ineffective system 

In Moulton’s speech he advocated for a system that considers “duty, fairness, sympathy, taste and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible.” Yet our current system, designed to rely on trusted specialists who have the competence, the freedom and the morality to exercise judgement, is compromised by an increasingly prescriptive system that incentivises the most lacklustre interpretation of the guidance offered with complete disregard to the actual legal performance requirements.

This trend undermines the fire engineering profession, as pointed out by Dr Danny Hopkin, transforming experts into rule-memorising automatons, regurgitating them back at design teams, eventually dumbing down the profession and making designing and ensuring safety in new types of buildings problematic.

Moulton argued that the greatness of a nation with “law and freedom” is measured by its “obedience to the unenforceable,” highlighting the importance of ethics and the trust that individuals will do what is right.

 But when those involved in designing fire safety have as primary driver the objective to meet prescriptive guidance, not to ensure safety, things can go horribly wrong, demonstrated by the Grenfell tragedy where those entrusted in doing the right thing, knowingly, chose not to.

The first phase report of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry by Sir Martin Moore-Bick showed that existing building regulations and fire safety standards are not working effectively and need overhauling.

However, despite the good intent, recent fire consultations have perpetuated the confusion by adding prescriptive patches of regulation to a performance-based framework, also known technically as a ‘bodge’.

The prescriptive alternative 

Given the prevalent treatment of UK guidance as prescriptive law, the proposal of a fully prescriptive system akin to that of the US arises.

The US system, highly prescriptive and rigid, sacrifices freedom of choice for ease of compliance, a trade-off that may not align with Lord Moulton’s vision, as “in many countries – especially the younger nations – there is a tendency to make laws to regulate everything”.

Still, the prescriptive code is broad and extensive, capturing a majority of buildings into its scope and leaving only a minority to the ‘Alternative Means and Materials’ process, the exact opposite effect of ADB.

This system only works because it is backed by a framework of national standards that must be updated every three years in a transparent and public process.

This ensures that innovation and originality can be easily adopted into the building codes because they are frequently reviewed, while standards and code committees are publicly accountable.   

We experienced this first hand, when Plumis was successful in including the category of electronically operated water mist systems into the US’ NFPA 750 Standard after an 18-month process.

Meanwhile, BS 8458:2015, the UK equivalent water mist standard, has not been updated for eight years to include electronically controlled nozzles despite their existence in the market for over 10 years.

Prescriptive OR performance-based approach 

The argument is not on whether the UK should adopt the US approach, it is that the UK should adopt a single, consistent approach, in line with its vision of society.

A genuine adherence to Lord Moulton’s principles would place trust on specialist fire engineers to exercise judgement based on their knowledge.

Natural selection would very quickly raise competence levels, which continue currently to be undermined by voluntary prescriptive guidance patched up by prescriptive regulation.

This does not mean that experience and best practices are lost in a book bonfire.

Guidance documents for the design of buildings should be converted into a repository of best practices and embedded knowledge, to be used more as a menu to be selected from rather than a recipe of what to do to make a building safe, with “can” and “may” rather than “should’ terminology.

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC)’s Fire Safety in Specialised Housing guide already tends towards this logic in not being fully prescriptive, but in proposing workable solutions and most importantly calling for use of judgement.

It also allows for alternative and innovative methods to be applied if they are improving the overall safety of the building, especially when many of these innovations work much better than old practices for existing buildings and changes in use.

The UK Building Regulations must decide between a regularly updated, well-regulated prescriptive code, or double-down on a truly Lord Moulton “law and freedom” performance-based system, not continue to be patched up.

Fundamentally, the overhaul of UK Building Regulations has not yet started.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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