Balcony fires are devastating and sadly all too common. In recent weeks, a fire in Barking destroyed 20 apartments and seriously damaged 10 more. Whilst there were fortunately no fatalities or serious injuries the fire could have been far graver.
The fire in Barking calls into question the materials used on exteriors under 18 metres, as the balconies in question met the regulatory requirements. Fire risk is always present, but the seriousness of a fire and the risk of spreading it to neighbouring balconies can be controlled in the design stage.
A fire starting on an apartment balcony can lead to significant damage to the apartment itself and adjoining units. Balcony fires and their all-too-common outcomes can largely be avoided by educating residents in fire safety and by designing buildings with balconies that minimise the spread of fire.
Latest government regulations on fire safety in residential buildings taller than 18 metres ban the use of combustible materials in cladding and balconies. The new ban – confirmed in Parliament on 29 November 2018 by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire – flows from Dame Judith Hackett’s review of the Grenfell tragedy. The ban is not retrospective, but it does apply to all buildings where work starts after 21 February 2019.
Safe balcony use
It’s estimated that some 45,000 London apartments have balconies, and with another 450 ‘tall’ residential buildings in the pipeline, balcony numbers are set to grow considerably. Demand for similar apartments in other big cities will raise the total still further.
London Fire Brigade has expressed serious concerns about ‘balcony barbecues’ – many of which are sold online and with apparently no fire safety guidance. An uncontrolled flare-up from fat could be disastrous in the confines of a balcony. Fire brigade advice is not to barbecue on balconies – and certainly not to leave one to burn out, unattended. But other sources of fire – such as cigarettes and scented candles – can also be dangerous on balconies if used without due caution. Despite the danger of balcony barbecues, and the additional burden they place on fire brigades, there is no legislation to ban them in the U.K.
The new, post-Grenfell regulations mean there is now a requirement for fireproof construction for all balconies on buildings taller than 18 metres or on a site boundary. Of course, designers are free to apply the stricter regulations to buildings of less than 18m.
The core problem in traditional balcony design is the need for a lightweight, bolt-on construction, often with exclusive use of timber for components such as joists, flooring, soffits, railings and privacy screens. All of which increase the risk of fire spread – especially during hot, dry weather.
Therefore, the challenge for architects and developers is finding a balcony solution that meets the new standards and minimises the risk of fire spreading – whatever the cause – but without compromising design, complicating construction or increasing costs.
A system designed for safer living: the solution
Sapphire Balconies has pioneered a solution that ticks all these boxes – and more. As a result, if there is a balcony fire – whether caused by a resident’s irresponsible actions or any other event – there is a greater chance of containing the fire and limiting damage.
Sapphire’s solution stems from ongoing research into fire performance. They also look at more precise specifications to restrict the spread of fire and reduce the risk of more extensive damage to buildings and their contents – and the danger to life.
Much of Sapphire’s knowledge on this subject is available to architects and developers in a concise and downloadable 15-minute CPD presentation on balcony fires. The advice they can offer at the design stage is designed to promote informed choices that balance the demands of safety, aesthetics and economics.
Lessons from past are incorporated in the evolving design of balcony systems which already promote the use of Class A components to minimise fire risk. The Sapphire Cassette® system, for example, has been independently assessed by Dr Gordon Cooke, a chartered civil engineer and fire safety consultant, who stated, “the construction can be considered of low fire load.”
All Sapphire Cassette® system balconies are based on Class A-rated metal joists. The company has for some time recommended the use of aluminium soffits. Aluminium soffits have been shown in practice to reduce the possibility of rising or falling embers affecting balconies above and below a fire.
Through specialist decking company MyDek, Sapphire developed a Class A-rated ribbed aluminium decking solution for maximum safety. They continue to offer Enjura decking options, such as Class B wood plastic composite, for installations where a full Class A rating is not required. Whilst Class B WPC decking does not burn easily, and expert opinion is that fire does not usually spread across floors, even where WPC is allowable below 18m (under the combustible cladding ban), the company still strongly recommend considering the use of Class A decking and soffits.
Experts also say that balcony fires are more likely to spread when other combustible materials, such as soft furnishings, are ignited. A balcony fire in Greenwich is believed to have been caused by a cigarette igniting a beanbag seat. In this instance, the fire damaged only a small area of WPC decking – and the aluminium soffits above and below the fire prevented vertical spread.
The danger of balcony fires could linger in many existing apartment buildings for many years unless curbed by legislation or widespread replacement projects. Systems such as the Cassette® can contribute significantly to a safer lifestyle in buildings now on the drawing board.
Sapphire are available to contact here regarding their role as part of a specialist industry panel at thought leadership events on fire.
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