It seems that the issue of external wall cladding is never out of the media following the Grenfell Tower disaster. New to the table is a different type of assessment for external wall systems called FRAA – this stands for Fire Risk Appraisal and Assessment. FRAA is likely to replace any previous guidance and provide a belt and braces process to evaluate external wall systems and construction on multi-occupancy blocks.
FRAA is borne on the back of PAS 9980 and is aimed at multi-storey, multi-occupancy residential blocks. It can also bring into the fold student accommodation, sheltered and specialised housing and conversions, if the development can be deemed to be similar in nature to a purpose-built block of flats. It includes partially clad and fully clad buildings.
FRAA will become mandatory for all blocks of flats once the new publicly available specification is introduced.
What is a Fire Risk Appraisal and Assessment?
The Government has tasked the British Standards Institute (BSI) to draft a Publicly Available Specification or PAS to guide assessors when they are reviewing external walls and cladding materials.
The draft PAS is numbered 9980 with a full title, “Fire risk appraisal and assessment of external wall construction and cladding of existing blocks of flats”. Key to the PAS is a detailed methodology for undertaking an assessment; there is detail about what could be wrong with walls but nothing to indicate what is acceptable, so the onus is placed firmly on the assessor.
The purpose of a Publicly Available Specification is to specifically evaluate the risk to the building’s occupants, from fire spreading externally within or over the walls of the block, and whether any remedial steps are necessary because the risk of combustible material is deemed to be too high.
The remit and reach of the FRAA is wide and far-reaching and takes into account not just the external wall cladding and external wall construction but the design of the flats, the surroundings and access and escape routes. The intention is to complete an assessment which is both thorough and holistic. In this regard, PAS 9980 gives guidance and advice about undertaking a fire risk appraisal.
One of the key objectives of PAS 9980 is to provide a standard process and method to review buildings which will better enable those who conduct the assessments to operate, and for those who review their findings to understand and assess the risks to specific buildings. The idea is to make the process risk-based but to provide an overarching mechanism which ensures consistency. Principally, PAS 9980 is aimed at fire engineers and professionals but the reach will, in reality, be far greater.
What does FRAA mean for your building?
PAS 9980 is intended for fire specialists and fire engineers but its remit can include other building professionals who may be involved with or responsible for advising on the fire risk of external wall construction on a particular building. This also includes those who will make decisions based upon the findings of the FRAA.
Step forward building surveyors, architects and also:-
- Project managers
- Cladding contractors
- Building owners and landlords
- Managing agents
- Local housing authorities
- Building control organisations
- Fire and rescue authorities
- Valuers and mortgage companies
When the Fire Safety Act passes into law, external walls on blocks of flats will require a mandatory FRAA. This will mean an external wall assessment on a building which was not previously required to have one.
What are the implications for buildings that have already undergone an external wall system review?
That is a difficult one to call but it seems likely that a new review will be required in line with the latest guidance. There are many examples of blocks which have been reviewed twice or even three times under EWS1 requirements. It may be even possible to convert or update existing surveys to meet the new FRAA standard.
How does FRAA link to EWS1?
There is a clear correlation between FRAA and EWS1 and the implication that FRAA will replace EWS1 when the Fire Safety Act 2021 becomes law.
EWS1 only applies to blocks over a certain height whereas the new FRAA will apply to all blocks and as the EWS1 is a product of mortgage lenders, it is much more focused on the potential costs associated with external wall works, whereas the FRAA will focus solely on life safety of residents.
The writing has been on the wall as last January, the UK government extended external cladding and wall construction reviews to flats in blocks taller than 11 metres following which mortgage lenders started to demand an EWS1 form for almost any flat in a modern block to safeguard against a flat owner being compelled to fund expensive remediation and safety work. Under leasehold law, flat owners are liable for repairs and some face enormous cladding bills which cost more than their homes.
For those people in smaller blocks hoping to avoid the requirement of an EWS1 and who were cheered by the announcement from the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick in July, that buildings under 18m would no longer need an EWS1 form, PAS 9980 may not be good news. Plus, there is the very real fear that a building which passed an EWS1 inspection will not comply with the new guidance under FRAA and there are already plenty of examples of flats which were granted an A1 rating for EWS1 purposes, and which have since been downgraded on a subsequent inspection.
Who can complete an FRAA?
As of 2020, only 291 engineers were qualified to undertake checks and so a government-funded scheme is in place to train approximately 2,000. The new FRAA, however, is much more risk based so it is unlikely that fire engineers will be needed on low-risk properties. Therefore, the number of qualified professionals who are able to complete FRAA’s in the lower risk types of properties will potentially increase.
The picture has been fast moving since the Grenfell Tower disaster, some blocks have been subject to an EWS1 and others not, and insurance companies and mortgage lenders have been opting to protect themselves from the worst-case scenario by insisting on an EWS1 for all residential flats. Many flat owners find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, unable to move mortgages or sell their property and faced with huge bills which they cannot afford for remediation works on cladding which was pre-existing and deemed safe at the time they bought the property.
It is likely that mortgage companies, insurers and other relevant professionals will want to adopt the new PAS 9980 as the latest and most up-to-date guidance on a controversial topic subject to steerage from RICS although two big lenders have already gone their own way on EWS1 and ignored RICS guidance. The government has stated that it aims to launch a tool to prioritise buildings by risk when the Fire Safety Act takes effect.
FRAA and PAS 9980 is the government’s determined effort to bring order to a state of regulatory chaos and confusion with personal safety at the heart of the equation. FRAA will impact the external walls on any residential block with two or more flats, even sub-divided period houses. It will catch those flats not previously subject to EWS1 and those which have already passed this inspection. How effective the latest guidance will prove to be in promoting fire safety and freeing up a log jam of unsaleable flats remains to be seen, but it is clear that the headache of how to comply and with what is not going away for some time to come.