The LGA has direct experience of the failure of the construction product testing regime in two respects: the testing of cladding systems and the testing of fire doors.
Problems with the testing regime
Cladding – the BS 8414 test
- The Grenfell Tower inquiry has already concluded that the primary cause of the fire spread at Grenfell Tower was the cladding system and that the toxic smoke given off by insulation panels was probably the cause of the majority of deaths.
- In the wake of the fire the LGA and its members have worked closely with government to identify blocks with dangerous cladding systems and ensure they are remediated. During the course of this work it has become clear that the regulatory system has utterly failed to prevent flammable cladding of a variety of types from being placed on buildings. You will be aware of the wide variety of dangerous cladding systems that have been uncovered in the past four years.
- We consider the chief failures of the BS 8414 test and associated safety regime to be as follows:
- The BS 8414 test does not reflect real-world conditions.
- The tested system is put together by the manufacturers who, even if they are honest in their intent, will obviously assemble it as well as they possibly can, yet in the real world significantly less care will be taken.
- Prior to June 2017 MHCLG was informed that a large proportion of cladding contractors do not know how to assemble cladding systems properly. This report was made in the context of a failure to calculate wind-loading accurately and the resultant fear that cladding panels may fall off.
- Since the fire at Grenfell Tower we are aware that many landlords have found that cavity barriers have not been properly installed in cladding systems.
- There are numerous examples of this issue of product safety being undermined by poor installation in the construction industry, quite separate to the erection of cladding systems, which you will no doubt be aware of.
- The 8414 test also takes no account of the toxicity of smoke released by cladding and insulation products which is believed to have been a significant factor in causing deaths at Grenfell.
- In addition, the test facility we visited at BRE appeared to take no account of the effect of wind on a fire in a cladding system at height.
- The disconnect between the BS 8414 test and the real world was reportedly raised in an industry summit as long ago as 2014, yet in raising this challenge to the 8414 test we have occasionally been told that ‘the test is fine, but it is not supposed to reflect real-world conditions’.
- This suggests that those administering tests may view them as a purely scientific exercise and pay insufficient attention to the impact on the end user – in this case the resident.
- The most egregious example of the consequence of this culture is the debate over the lawfulness or otherwise of ACM (PE) panels. In our view it should have been obvious to the manufacturer that this product was not suitable to be used in the construction of high-rise buildings.
- The 8414 test could be cheated by manufacturers constructing systems that were designed to pass tests rather than to accurately reflect commercially available systems. Not only does the test not reflect the real world, but it was possible for manufacturers in assembling it to deliberately cheat the test on its own terms by inserting material that was not part of the system.
- Manufacturers could then misrepresent tests as proving a product was safe when in fact it had only passed a test in relation to a specific system. This does not appear to have been properly understood by either the industry or some regulators. The use of assessments in lieu of test blurred the meaning of test passes and opened the door for both outright dishonesty and honest mistakes. This was exacerbated by the lack of rigorous competence requirements for assessors.
- Standards are not always clear. It is difficult to judge the extent to which the co-existence of the ‘Class 0’ standard and genuine combustibility standards has been a genuine cause of confusion rather than an excuse for gaming the system, but it has certainly been unhelpful.
- When one manufacturer games the system, this will encourage others down a similar route.
- The BS 8414 test does not reflect real-world conditions.
- In March 2018 the Metropolitan Police revealed that fire doors from Grenfell Tower had failed tests. This eventually led to the withdrawal from sale of all Glass Reinforced Fire Doors in the UK. The LGA has worked with MHCLG to help our members and other landlords to obtain redress from the industry but with little success.
- Fire door tests also bear little relation to the real world. In seeking to engage manufacturers in discussions around compensation and remediation it has become clear that the conditions in which a door passes a test are so specific that almost any use of the door will render its performance below par. The manner in which a door is stored, the detail of its installation and the wear and tear it experiences in use have all been cited to us as reasons why a door removed from a social housing block might fail a subsequent test but not prove it was mis-sold.
- Again assessments in lieu of test have opened the door to both genuine errors and gaming of the system. The performance of a fire door appears capable of being fatally compromised by the slightest change in features such as spy holes and letter boxes.
- There appears to be little possibility for redress against either test houses or manufacturers.
- Manufacturers have told us they were misinformed by test houses that their products only required testing on one side (because this was true of timber doors) and they only realised this was not the case after the Grenfell Fire. As far as we know, there has been no consequence for the test houses.
- Our members have found it very difficult to obtain compensation from GRP door manufacturers. Some have gone out of business only for the assets to reappear in the hands of their former owners under a fresh name. Efforts by trading standards to look at the industry have got nowhere.
- Customers lack knowledge due to manufacturer secrecy. Several manufacturers have resisted requests to publish information about door tests citing commercial confidentiality. Owners seeking to establish whether their doors are fit for purpose have therefore faced lengthy delays in accessing test facilities and in any case know that if used door fails a test the manufacturer is unlikely to accept liability. MHCLG has tested doors and published the pass/fail data but has found it difficult to provide detail due to issues of commercial confidentiality.
- On the basis of our experience over the past four years we have the following general comments to make as to what we would like to see from your review.
- Residents should be at the heart of the building safety system and this needs to be ingrained in the minds of those conducting tests and those manufacturing products.
- There must be real consequences for the owners and managers of companies that miss-sell products. The new regulator must have real powers and sanctions.
- Testing needs to be designed in a way that delivers safety in the real world. This includes ensuring that any testing regime takes account of the fact that in the real-world building work is carried out under pressure of time and money that can encourage shoddy work if there is a lack of supervision.
- Tests must be independently supervised to ensure reports accurately record what was tested and how it performed
- Test houses must be held to account when they give poor advice or fail to properly supervise test.
- The issue of incentives in the testing industry needs to be properly investigated and its effects understood.
- The results of tests for marketed products must be publicly available (this does not need to apply to products in development).
- Assessments in lieu of test should not be allowed.
- Tests need to be performed to clear standards and the meaning of those standards should be clear.
- The results of tests need to be understood by the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ so there is no possibility of confusion about whether or not the product is safe to use.
- Those conducting tests and interpreting them must be subject to competence requirements.
- Contractors must keep records of materials used including evidence of test passes.