New cladding tests might see 1,700 buildings fail
THE TESTS on other materials beyond aluminium composite material (ACM) will, according to fire safety experts, see most of the 1,700 ‘at risk’ English buildings identified ‘fail’.
In February, the government announced it had widened its fire testing regime to include other materials than ACM, which could mean ‘potential uncertainty for thousands more residents’. Housing Minister Kit Malthouse ordered combustibility tests on cladding panels used on high rise residential blocks, hotels and student accommodation ‘that differ’ from ACM panels used on 437 buildings ‘identified so far’.
Research suggested that ‘at least’ 160 high rises have been built with materials used in rainscreen cladding systems ‘that have not been accounted for’ in prior government testing. These include high pressure laminate (HPL) panels made from compressed wood or paper fibre, used to produce ‘colourful skins for new buildings’, and some of which are classed as combustible.
Mr Malthouse stated that fire safety experts had updated guidance for the government, adding that ‘we have commissioned the Building Research Establishment [BRE] to conduct a programme of testing on non-ACM materials and we expect that testing to start shortly’. He added that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) had been ‘cajoling’ private building owners to remove ACM panels, and was considering ‘more assertive’ measures.
Later that month, it was reported that the tests would begin in March and results would be published in the summer, but in March industry experts expressed ‘grave concerns’ over the ‘bespoke safety testing methodology’, which means that the tests have ‘no success or failure criteria’, and are ‘less comprehensive’ than those on ACM cladding conducted since Grenfell. They will also not include insulation, will not test cavity barriers and ‘will have no legal standing’.
The last update in April saw the tests delayed after the BRE rig was ‘damaged’, with the schedule to be ‘reappraised’ according to Mr Malthouse, while the materials to be tested were named as zinc composite material, copper composite material, aluminium honeycomb, HPL, brick slip systems and reconstituted stone.
INews and BBC News reported that the tests might see cladding on 1,700 ‘at risk’ buildings across England fail, including ‘tower blocks, schools, nursing homes and hospitals’, and chartered engineer Dr Jonathan Evans, who was part of the government’s cladding testing team post Grenfell, said some of the tests ‘would fail’, while he also called for ‘complete transparency’ over the test results, while BRE noted that none of the cladding systems that had passed a BS 8414 test included HPL cladding.
Inside Housing also reported on London councils calling for ‘transparency’ over the new tests, with the London Councils organisation stating that experts warning of the likelihood of the tests failing ‘should serve as a wake-up call to ministers’. The news outlet noted that the government tests would combine HPL with non combustible insulation, but industry sources remarked that ‘up to 80%’ of HPL systems use combustible plastic foam insulation.
In turn, they claimed that the tests would be carried out on Class B rated HPL even though ‘most buildings’ are using the ‘more combustible’ Class D, and the news outlet quoted Dr Evans as accusing the government of trying to ‘contain the cladding scandal’.
Darren Rodwell, executive member for housing and planning at London Councils and leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, stated: ‘We urgently need far greater transparency from the government over the process of testing potentially unsafe materials. We want clarity over the precise timetable for testing and sharing results.
‘It’s also crucial that the government confirms its plan for dealing with materials that fail the tests. London boroughs believe the government should commit to funding the remediation of all dangerous cladding systems. This is the only viable route to ensuring all buildings are made safe without further delay. It’s essential that ministers continue to work closely with councils in addressing these issues.’
An MHCLG spokesperson commented: ‘We issued an advice notice on non-ACM cladding systems, reiterating the clearest way to ensure fire safety is to remove unsafe materials.’