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Repurposing buildings: Transforming the old into something new

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Ian King, COO, Zeroignition talks repurposing buildings

Michael Gove’s proposal to ease planning regulations in England, to boost the number of homes in “the hearts of our cities”, presents the construction industry with an innovative approach to repurposing, and on paper the concept is very positive.

This change holds the promise of breathing new life into towns and cities burdened with vacant and neglected buildings. The potential for revitalised communities is enormous.

Yet, it is essential to approach this endeavour with caution, drawing lessons from past mistakes.

We must not allow it to become a reckless pursuit without regard for quality and safety.

In the haste to rejuvenate existing buildings, we must prioritise non-negotiable fire safety procedures.

There can be no compromise when it comes to ensuring the safety and security of future residents in their new homes.

We must strike a balance between speed and diligence, creating spaces that not only breathe life into our cities but also provide sanctuaries that residents can trust and rely on.

By doing so, we will ensure these new homes will keep residents safe and secure around the clock.

In this article, I’d like to explore a number of essential fire safety considerations that should be deliberated, when converting the use of a building.

New Intentions

The likelihood of a fire occurring in an open plan commercial space is extremely low. It will have been built to meet a specific purpose – as a department store or office, for example.

This means the main components including the structure itself, the floors, ceilings, roof, walls, and windows will be fit for purpose, up to standard, and fire safe.

It is when this space is divided up into individual, self-contained dwellings that issues can arise.

The building can quickly change from being fire safe, to a serious fire hazard.

Why is this? Ultimately, when a building’s intended purpose is altered, an entirely new set of fire risks emerge.

For instance, a retail shop would probably be occupied in normal opening hours only.

Moreover, the fire escapes, exits and procedures will be clearly accessible through the open plan space, by everyone in the building.

Residential houses on the other hand are occupied 24 hours a day, and people are living, cooking, and sleeping within the newly converted apartments, each divided by numerous doors and corridors.

In the event of a fire, the escape routes become far harder to navigate as they were built to cater to the original open design of the building.

A systematic approach

All new build projects should follow a system-led fire protection design method.

Within this, both active and passive fire protection will be fully addressed and each individual component will be rigorously checked and tested to ensure they work suitably together as a system to protect against any fire outbreaks.

With such opportunities, there may be individuals who attempt to take shortcuts in order to meet project deadlines and budget constraints.

However, this practice carries the potential for detrimental consequences.

To counteract this, the Government must maintain a vigilant level of scrutiny and fortify its standards and regulations for every project.

The enforcement of these measures is paramount to guaranteeing that all completed dwellings are safe, liveable, and meet the highest standards without any exceptions.

There is no doubt repurposing empty commercial buildings, that would otherwise fall into disrepair, provides a very positive step towards making more housing available at speed.

It would encourage the rise of traditional ’15-minute communities’, where convenience is at the heart and everything residents need will be on their doorstep.

But let’s not use this as an excuse to jump through loopholes.

The recent past has surely taught the industry just how harmful and devastating corner-cutting can be.

Better to abide by the best processes and checks, using high quality, fully approved fire rated products in conversion projects. Then we can all sleep easy at night.

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