Since the Grenfell Tower disaster, there has understandably been an increase in retrofit sprinkler system installations in the UK, especially in high-rise residential buildings. Our national sales manager Gavin Byram answers some frequently asked questions about this type of installation.
Q: Are sprinkler systems often fitted retrospectively?
A: Yes, especially in high-rise properties in the social housing sector. The tragedy at Grenfell Tower understandably led many local authority and housing association landlords to review and improve their fire safety systems. Sprinkler systems control or extinguish fires in 99 per cent of cases, and in the UK no one has ever died in a fire within a building fitted with working sprinklers.
Q: Is there a specific requirement to fit sprinkler systems in high-rise flats?
A: Nowhere in the UK is it a requirement to retrospectively fit sprinklers in existing buildings* – but, to help safeguard their tenants, many social housing landlords have nonetheless committed to doing so, despite a lack of funding from government.
The All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, National Fire Chiefs Council, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Fire Brigades Union, the Association of British Insurers, the Fire Protection Association, London Fire Brigade and the Fire Sector Federation have all called for the retrofitting of sprinklers.
The government recently confirmed that updates to Approved Document B of the Building Regulations (expected in May 2020) will include a mandatory requirement for sprinkler systems to be installed in all new high-rise blocks of flats over 11 metres tall. Since 2007, the Building Regulations in England have stipulated that new high-rise residential buildings taller than 30 metres should have sprinklers fitted (and existing high-rises in England must have them fitted if a fundamental change is made to the structure or use of the building). These regulations are the same in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland the rules apply to residential buildings over 18 metres, and in Wales, all new and refurbished residential accommodation must have sprinklers*.
Q: Are retrofit installations challenging in comparison to new build?
A: Fitting sprinkler systems at ‘live’ sites can be challenging, as the flats are obviously occupied, but the other issue is that with a retrofit installation, the equipment needs to be fitted around existing structures, layouts and materials.
One of the main issues is that retrofit sprinkler pipework is mounted onto ceilings and walls, rather than being fitted in cavity spaces, as would be the case in a new build property. The pipework is usually made of a thermoplastic called chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC), and is orange – so it can be really unsightly.
It’s essential for occupants to feel comfortable with sprinkler system installations and the end result – anecdotal evidence suggests that landlords can face resistance, particularly in terms of aesthetics. While many tenants welcome sprinkler systems, some have refused to have them fitted in their flats because they believe the unattractive pipework would have a detrimental impact on their homes.
Most landlords therefore opt for the pipework to be concealed, or ‘boxed in’, so the visual impact is minimised. This goes a long way towards ensuring the sprinkler system is unobtrusive and complements the existing décor, helping to alleviate any resistance.
Boxing in also protects the system; accidental, or even deliberate, activation of sprinkler heads can have major consequences, including huge refurbishment costs.
Q: How is the pipework ‘boxed in’?
A: As public sector budgets are already tight, it’s crucial for landlords to choose an approach that will save time and money on site.
Some contractors fabricate their own solutions while at a property – cutting lengths of wood or MDF to size and shape (including fabricating correctly sized holes for the sprinkler heads), gluing it around the pipework and then priming and painting it. This approach will usually involve a lot of measuring and adjustment; flats in tower blocks typically have different internal layouts (even within the same building if modifications have been made) and site drawings often differ to reality. Sprinkler system designs also vary from one company to the next. On-site fabrication can therefore be time-consuming – which can prove costly and can delay completion. The results are not always satisfactory in terms of aesthetics and consistency of fit and finish either.
An alternative is Pendock’s pre-formed, pre-finished, made-to-measure sprinkler pipe boxing, which provides a uniform finish while reducing the time and costs involved and minimising tenant disruption. It effectively covers lengths of sprinkler pipework running along ceilings and walls. It’s simple to fit and doesn’t require painting, making it a cost-effective, quick solution. In fact, we estimate it takes half the time to fit pre-formed pipe boxing compared to on-site fabrication.
We offer a range of accessories, including access panels and a bracket system that eliminates the removal of asbestos ceilings. We also offer site visits and assistance with overall project design.