Feature: Fire fighting

By Matt Balmer
February 3, 2018

The Grenfell Tower fire, which killed more than 70 people, was a tragic reminder of the responsibility placed on design professionals. Kay Hill looks at what fire regulations apply to domestic interior projects.

January 2018
Designers working on commercial projects will be familiar with the requirements for more or less everything to be fire rated. But while working on someone’s home comes with far fewer rules, there is just as much responsibility. “Even though there aren’t a lot of regulations for domestic projects, we should always be aware of everything we are putting inside a building,” says Gilly Craft, owner of Koubou Interiors and director of CPD at the BIID.

Materials for upholstered furniture, mattresses and some children’s products are the most strictly regulated. All fabric used there must meet specified levels of fire retardancy – through natural fire resistance, use of an interliner or, more controversially, a chemical fire retardant spray. The regulations were introduced in 1988, following a steep rise in fire deaths blamed on foam and artificial fabrics replacing traditional, naturally fire-resistant upholstery materials. The change was successful, and the number of house fires decreased by 38% between 1987 and 2007.
“As interior designers, we need to know our stuff. Fire safety has to be ingrained – you don’t see the fire protection on a sofa, but it needs to be there,” Phoebe Oldrey, founder of Smartstyle Interiors and SBID member, notes. “Clients aren’t really interested in fire treatments. It’s not sexy or beautiful, and they tend to think they are immune to such disasters.”

Thanks to The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) “designers” working on residential projects have more responsibility than ever. “The designer’s main duty is to eliminate, reduce or control foreseeable risks that may arise during construction work, or in the use and maintenance of the building once built,” it reads. According to the legislation, designers “can be architects, consulting engineers and quantity surveyors, or anyone who specifies and alters designs as part of their work”, as well as tradespeople.

AGA Stoves. ELLESMERE 6 Matt-Black ec

The regulations are so new, their full extent hasn’t been tested in law – but in theory the scope goes far beyond other legislation. For example, if the client is disabled, a heavy smoker, or likes to fill their house with lighted scented candles, it could be argued the designer – in order “to eliminate, reduce or control foreseeable risks” – should insist on fire-rated carpets and curtains (or at least document they were recommended but the client refused).

“Commercial clients don’t have a choice about adhering to the regulations, so you don’t have difficult conversations,” admits Gilly Craft. “But when you are doing someone’s house, they have the ultimate say, and you can’t make them choose a fire rated product like you could if it was a hotel. If they want a pretty curtain fabric there aren’t a lot of fire retardant choices – advances are going to have to come from the fabric companies.”

Contura 310 White Lifestyle

Designers also need to be aware of a home’s existing issues which could cause a foreseeable risk – old polystyrene ceiling tiles are a notorious fire hazard, but a lesser known issue is the danger surfaces which have been repainted over and over again pose. Ben Pickford, director of specialist company Rawlins Paint, deals with up to 50 queries a week about fire-rated paints. “Over the years you sometimes get multiple layers of different paints of different types being put onto a surface, and it gets to the point where that surface can be a really serious hazard in a fire,” he warns. “All those paints reacting together create excess smoke and fumes and can melt from ceilings like drops of fire. The easiest way to tackle that is to
use a paint over the top that upgrades
the whole surface – you don’t have to
strip it back.”
In some instances, Building Regulations can require fire-retardant or intumescent paint to be used, even in a residential property – to protect exposed wooden beams or structural steelwork, for
example, or to coat protected stairways
in taller properties. “In the past it used to be thick, gloopy stuff that was difficult to use,” admits Pickford, “But that isn’t the case anymore. The colour choice is almost unlimited, including whitewashed shabby chic looks for timber and stains for wood.” In addition, fire doors are generally required in the upper storeys of taller homes (above 4.5m from ground level). If
a ceiling is fire-rated, for example in a taller home’s escape route, any downlights must be fire-rated to the same standard.
Designers may also come up against regulations when specifying stoves. Glossy brochures often show chic Scandinavian stoves standing directly on tiled kitchen floors or perched on top of rustic log stores. But Building Regulations 2010 Part J may put a dampener on things. Among
a host of other stove-related rules, it requires hearths to be visually different from surrounding areas and stoves to be well away from any combustible materials.
With such a plethora of regulations, the need for regular CPD has never been more obvious. “We have to seek out the knowledge, it doesn’t come to us,” says Phoebe Oldrey. “I went to college 15 years ago, and regulations change all the time. It’s our job to keep learning – CPD makes me better as a designer, so I make time
for it.” However, no amount of studying is likely to embed every single of the regulations into a designer’s head – so perhaps the best bit of advice comes
from Gilly Craft: “You need to have an overall understanding of the regulations – enough to know when you need to look things up!”

Key Legislation

Building Regulations 2010 Part B – applies to all dwellings where significant building work is carried out and contains measures to ensure escape access from buildings and to contain fires. In a two-storey home an opening upstairs window is usually sufficient, but in new build three or four storey homes a protected, fire resistant stairway (with suitably fire resistant décor) must lead to an external door at ground level and fire doors must be used for all habitable rooms along it. Homes with top floors above 7.5m require a second escape staircase or added protection such as sprinklers, and stricter rules are in force for block of flats.

The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 – enforces minimum standards of fire resistance for fabrics and fillings used for furniture upholstery, nursery equipment, mattresses, upholstered headboards and bed bases and cushion fillings. All furniture sold in the UK apart from vintage pieces from pre-1950 must conform. The regulations are stricter than in other EU countries and critics say it puts British manufacturers at a disadvantage and that the tests used don’t reflect real life (for example, fabrics are tested over a flammable foam that is no longer in use, and the number of smokers has decreased massively). Environmental campaigners are also concerned about health risks from flame retardant sprays that are encouraged by the regulations. A Government consultation on reforming these regulations closed in November 2016, but no results have been announced.

The regulations do not cover curtains and carpets; where fire-resistant carpets are advisable, wool is naturally flame retardant and has a higher ignition temperature than other carpet fibres and it produces less smoke and fumes that a synthetic carpet. Carpets that have been tested with a hot metal nut will be labelled as meeting BS5287 and BS4790.

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 – these regulations put the responsibility on a designer to “eliminate, reduce or control foreseeable risks [specifically including fire risks] that may arise during construction work, or in the use and maintenance of the building once built”.

Building Regulations 2010 Part J – applies to all dwellings where significant building work is carried out and contains rules about the safety of heating appliances including rules about the size, material and visual appearance of hearths and storage of combustible materials.

The UK General Product Safety Regulations 2005 require all products to be ‘safe’. Acceptable evidence of safety would be that the product has been tested against known standards. So any interiors product that was highly flammable and untested, or had failed tests, might be in breach.

The Housing Health and Safety Rating System – applies to homes that are rented out, whether privately or through local authorities. Fire is one of the hazards that must be avoided and the “design and construction of the building should limit the spread of fire/smoke”. It also stipulates “properly constructed/fitted internal doors”.

Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (2005) – although this relates mainly to commercial environments, it does include requirements for communal areas in apartment blocks and homes of multiple occupation. It replaced more than 70 previous regulations, including the requirement for fire certificates, but has been criticised by the RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety in the wake of the Grenfell disaster. The committee has called for the repeal of the regulations and the “re-introduction of mandatory fire certificates for designated premises based on independent inspections by the fire brigades”.