Michael Clifford: Apartment sprinklers are now all systems go

New fire regulations for open-plan living are, like so much of the State’s planning process,developer-led, but is there a cost to safety standards? asks Michael Clifford.

Michael Clifford: Apartment sprinklers are now all systems go

New fire regulations for open-plan living are, like so much of the State’s planning process,developer-led, but is there a cost to safety standards? asks Michael Clifford.

Last summer, the Department of Housing started a public consultation on fire safety for a new kind of apartment living.

Large-scale open-plan apartments are now being built or planned for in at least four locations, three in Dublin and one in Cork.

Most of these projects are being undertaken by the international property companies that have poured into the country in the last five or so years.

This has occurred at a time when apartment building and rents have been hugely ramped up.

One of the principal attractions in open-plan apartments for developers is that it cuts down on construction costs.

Another is that it increases the number of apartments that can be built on a site.

In terms of fire safety, the open plan arrangement requires that measures be taken to ensure that fire can’t spread, particularly from an open-plan kitchen. Most fires start in the kitchen.

Typical of this new kind of apartment is a development in Cherrywood, south Dublin.

“The apartments at Cherrywood will pioneer an open-plan living design in Ireland where living rooms and kitchens are connected, creating a spacious living area.

"This approach allows for open-plan spaces and the possibility for natural light to stretch into internal space,” the brochure states.

The development is build-to-rent operated by Hines, the international real estate company that is currently building or planning up to 4,500 apartments in the country.

Hines’ Cherrywood complex consists of 344 units, including studios, one, two and three-bedroom apartments.

Unusually for such a brochure there is a section on fire safety.

“In order to achieve the open-plan layout and comply with fire safety requirements, our apartments in Cherrywood must have sprinklers.

"Extensive fire testing was required to satisfy Dublin Fire Brigade that the open-plan apartments with sprinklers were as safe as, or safer, than conventional apartments with lobbies and fire doors without sprinklers.”

The opinion that the sprinkler system is “as safe as, or safer” than conventional apartments is not shared by some in the construction business.

“What you are doing with the sprinkler system is transferring responsibility for fire safety from the developer to the owners who will have to ensure the sprinklers are maintained,” according to architect and housingpolicy analyst Mel Reynolds.

“We know from research that a lot of management companies are underfunded and have inadequate sinking funds.

"That’s apart from whether it is wise to take out the fire lobbies that these sprinkler systems are effectively replacing.”

Apart from the sprinkler system, the other feature in terms of fire safety is the distance from the kitchen cooker to an escape route. This is central to safety.

In the consultation document published by the department last summer, the suggested distance was three metres.

A report in the Irish Times in November pointed out that Hines had lobbied in its submission to have this reduced to 1.5m. Under the recently published regulations, the distance was reduced to 1.8 metres.

So did the department loosen up the rules as a result of lobbying from developers?

In response to a series of questions the Department of Housing state that it received 39 submissions on the new fire safety regulations between late June and late August 2019.

Following the closure of the submissions, the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy met a delegation of fire consultants to discuss the new proposed regulations.

The following month the junior minister Damien English met the same fire consultants and representatives of the construction industry.

A spokesperson for the department told the Irish Examiner that apart from those meetings there was no specific lobbying about the new fire safety regulations.

Damien English
Damien English

In any event the reduced distance in terms of fire safety that was preferred by developers was the one included in the new regulations.

To that extent, the new fire regulations are, like much of planning, developer-led.

The open-plan apartments in Cherrywood and elsewhere were already being built by the time the regulations, known as Technical Guidance B, were published on February 10 last.

These developments had received permission to go ahead from local authority fire brigades after making detailed design submissions.

Another issue around the new fire safety regulations is the lack of a filter outside the industry or the department.

Up until 2012, a body called the Building Regulations Advisory Body (BRAB) was consulted about any new regulations.

Provision was made for such a filtering body in the 1990 Building control act.

The BRAB consisted of industry representatives and others from civic society, including members representing disability, environmental and consumer groups.

When its last term of office expired in 2012, the body was not replaced.

Eoin Ó Cofaigh, a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and a member of the BRAB for six years, believes that the advisory body would have had serious issues with the latest guidance on fire safety.

“The BRAB had wide representation from across the construction sector and from user groups, but in my opinion the Department of the Environment, as it then was, found it to be inconvenient because from time to time it expressed opinions which weren’t liked; and as a result, it has not been convened for many years,” he said.

“If this new guidance had come before the BRAB in draft format for comment, I would have opposed it, on the grounds that it does not deliver a level of safety equivalent to what has been replaced.

"I believe also that others, for example, people nominated by Access Groups, wouldn’t have been happy either.

"And we all know from tragedies elsewhere that reduced fire safety standards can lead to horrendous outcomes.

“There is a push to drive down the price of apartments here but reducing fire safety standards is not the way to go about it.

"In terms of maintaining the sprinklers even, the experience in Ireland has been that apartment buildings can have significant management problems.”

Last summer, the Department of Housing started a public consultation on fire safety for a new kind of apartment living.

Hines statement

A spokesperson for Hines told the Irish Examiner that the Cherrywood complex was built within a distance of less than 1.8m between cooker and escape route, even though the new regulations had not been issued at the time.

The spokesman also provided the following statement.

“The open plan apartments in Cherrywood have been designed and approved based on internationally recognised British Standard codes — which are fully recognised under Irish technical guidance.

"The design compliance submissions to Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLRCC) were supplemented at the request of Dublin Fire Brigade by BRE Assessments, specific to the open-plan layouts in Cherrywood, and the fire certs were granted by DLRCC on this basis.

“The analysis has indicated that fire safety in apartments is improved by a factor of almost 10 times, arising from the inclusion of a sprinkler system in this design, by comparison with the traditional fire wall system.

"The recently issued update on Technical Guidance B includes additional commentary and recommendations for open plan flat design and removes the requirement to have BRE assessments undertaken for each open plan design, as was the case previously.”

A spokesperson for Hines told the Irish Examiner that the Cherrywood complex was built at a distance greater than 1.8m between cooker and escape route, even though the new regulations had not been issued at the time.

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