The Grenfell Tower fire, which took place on June 14th 2017, irrevocably changed the landscape of high-rise building regulation in the UK. 

There are some 42,000 buildings over 18m high in London alone, with 70,000 addresses attached to them. Tall buildings are becoming more common throughout the UK, but buildings built decades ago likely pose the greatest risks. 

The state of high-rise estates in the UK

While the UK is not famous for its high-rise buildings, with just one – The Shard – exceeding 300m, there are still many thousands of residential estates in London, Birmingham, and Manchester especially. 

115 tall buildings are under construction in London alone, providing over 100,000 homes. Around 70% of high-rise buildings are residential, the remaining being mixed-use or commercial. Supply and demand for high-rise buildings have been increasing consistently since 2010. 

However, despite a drive to build new high-rise buildings, a widely publicised study estimates that by 2050, 80% of the UK’s housing stock will be existing buildings. As such, there is a great emphasis on safely maintaining older buildings to meet current safety standards. 

The building industry and policymakers are advocating for stricter maintenance protocols and renovation projects to ensure the safety and longevity of these buildings.

Legislation for high-rise buildings in the UK

In response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the UK government has significantly overhauled building regulations by introducing the Building Safety Bill. The bill marks a paradigm shift in the regulatory landscape, strongly emphasising accountability and safety.

The bill provides a clear framework for those deemed as ‘accountable persons,’ including building owners and managers, clearly stating their duties regarding the safety of high-rise residential buildings. They are responsible for managing safety risks, keeping the building up to regulatory standards, and ensuring clear safety communication with residents.

An essential component of the bill is the introduction of the Building Safety Regulator, a new role under the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). 

This regulator oversees high-risk buildings’ safe design, construction, and occupation. The aim is to create a proactive culture of safety and compliance, with stricter regulations and oversight.

Here’s an overview of the updated bill:

For high-rise residential buildings, the designated responsible persons are mandated to:

  • Supply the local fire services with blueprints of the building and place a printed copy in a secure information box on the premises.
  • Supply local fire services with details about the design and materials used in the building’s external wall system, and notify them of any alterations to these materials.
  • Disclose information regarding the risk level posed by the external wall structure and the measures taken to mitigate such risks.
  • Carry out monthly inspections on the functioning of lifts and other firefighting equipment, promptly informing the fire service of any issues if they cannot be rectified within 24 hours. The results of these checks should be accessible to residents.
  • Implement and upkeep a secure information box containing the responsible person’s name and contact details.
  • Install directional signage that remains visible in dim light or smoky situations, identifying flat and floor numbers in the stairwells of relevant buildings.

For residential buildings with storeys exceeding 11 metres in height, the responsible persons must:

  • Conduct annual inspections of flat entrance doors and quarterly checks of all fire doors in the communal areas.

For all multi-occupied residential buildings with two or more domestic premises, responsible persons are obligated to:

  • Based on the building’s evacuation plan, provide necessary fire safety guidelines to their residents, including how to report a fire and what steps to take post-fire.
  • Educate residents about the crucial role fire doors play in fire safety.

Regulation changes for commercial buildings

Under the updated fire safety regulations, landlords are obliged to carry out a fire risk assessment for both commercial and residential properties they lease. 

These amendments also consider new measures implemented by the Government, specifically those concerning unsafe cladding, that has been blamed for helping flames to spread when fire broke out.

Landlords renting out buildings to new commercial tenants must consider the updated Act. 

Moreover, maintaining signage to ensure it works as intended is critical. 

In addition, regulatory guidance now stresses the safety and performance of all buildings in England, including stricter guidelines for authorities overseeing buildings and prosecuting those responsible for non-compliance. 

Therefore, regulations are tighter across the full spectrum of both residential and commercial buildings.

The critical role of signage 

Effective health and safety signage can guide building occupants during emergencies, preventing confusion and potentially saving lives. The Grenfell Inquiry found that poor-quality signage contributed to the failure of rescue efforts. 

Updates to the Fire Safety Order obligate using high-quality signage clearly visible in smoky conditions. Certain types of signage, like floor decals, have become considerably more popular. 

Fire safety regulations post-Grenfell

In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster, fire safety regulations in the UK also saw significant reforms. 

The government introduced a new Fire Safety Regulation, reinforcing the importance of regular safety checks and comprehensive fire risk assessments.

These assessments, mandatory for all residential buildings over 18 metres tall, need to consider the building’s structure, the materials used, and the potential ignition sources. 

The regulation also requires suitable fire safety measures, adequate equipment, and emergency plans. Regular reviews and updates are mandated to ensure that these measures keep pace with any changes in the building or its use.

High-rise building compliance and safety

Compliance and safety in high-rise buildings demand a rigorous and detail-oriented approach. 

Ensuring the safety of building occupants is not a one-time task – it’s an ongoing commitment that requires regular inspections and risk assessments, regular reporting, diligent maintenance work, and meticulous record-keeping.

Building managers must adhere to building codes, encompassing a wide range of requirements from structural integrity, fire safety systems to HVAC and electrical installations. 

Regular inspections, often mandated by these codes, ensure that buildings remain compliant and can identify potential issues before they escalate into major problems. 

Risk assessments are equally critical. They help identify potential hazards in the building, whether structural, electrical, or fire-related. Once identified, these hazards can be mitigated through preventive maintenance and upgrades.

Additionally, record-keeping is a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of building compliance and safety. 

Keeping detailed records of all inspections, maintenance work, and safety drills helps manage routine tasks and provides necessary documentation during safety audits or in the event of an incident.

The role of high-rise building maintenance

Building maintenance for high-rise buildings is a vast and complex field, encompassing various systems and components that work together to keep the building functional and safe. 

Requirements vary depending on whether a building is residential, commercial or mixed-use, but building managers should strive to deliver exceptional maintenance to ensure that side of the building is kept in check. 

  • Fire Safety Systems: Regular checks of fire alarm systems, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, and emergency exit paths are mandatory. Any fault or malfunction in these systems should be addressed immediately.
  • Elevators: Elevator and lift maintenance in high-rise buildings undergo substantial daily use. Regular inspections and maintenance are essential to ensure their safe operation.
  • HVAC Units: Air conditioning systems should be regularly cleaned and maintained to prevent breakdowns and improve efficiency and lifespan.
  • Electrical Systems: Regular inspections can identify potential issues like overloaded circuits, faulty wiring, or outdated components that could pose fire risks.
  • Structural Components: Periodic checks of the building’s structural components, such as the foundation, beams, and columns, are necessary to identify and address any signs of wear and tear or damage.

A final thought

Learning from the Grenfell fire, we understand that robust building maintenance management is more than just a responsibility – it’s a necessity. Effective maintenance management involves a systematic approach to inspecting, repairing, and maintaining the various components of a high-rise building.

Such an approach allows for comprehensive tracking and management of all maintenance tasks, ensuring no task slips through the cracks. An effective system can identify and resolve potential issues before they become major problems, leading to safer buildings. 

Furthermore, maintenance management includes preventive measures. By regularly servicing systems and replacing parts before they fail, we can reduce the risk of unforeseen breakdowns and associated hazards.

A rigorous and proactive approach to maintenance can help avoid future disasters. It enables a culture of safety and responsibility, where compliance is the norm and where every task, no matter how small, contributes to the overall safety and longevity of the building.

As we move forward, it’s our responsibility to ensure that our high-rise buildings are safe and compliant, so we can ensure a safer future for our cities.