Time for a fresh look at the case for compulsory installation of residential sprinklers?

The enquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy is well under way. And although it is sometimes considered trite to say so, lessons will be learned.

One of those will almost certainly concern the much-discussed issue of making mandatory the installation of sprinklers in residential accommodation. Current Scottish regulations require sprinklers in high rise residential buildings which are those over 18m in height, approximately 6 or 7 storeys.

In that context a further consultation on fire and building safety which will better protect all homes, new-build, privately or socially rented or owner occupied, has been launched this month (September 2017) by the Scottish Government.

Around three quarters of all fire-related deaths arise at home. The horrible incident in west London took place against a backdrop of a sharp increase in numbers of fire-related deaths – up 21% between 2014 and 2015.

An ageing population and, some claim, the cuts that have been applied to local authorities’ budgets have played a part in the increased number of deaths. Certainly, evidence suggests that fire response times are getting longer, especially in the UK’s largest cities.

Social housing tenants are at greater risk from fire than other groups because of demographic factors including an ageing population, with the majority of deaths from fire occurring among those over the age of 65. This is because people in this age group find it harder to evacuate a building in time. The disabled are vulnerable for the same reason.

The issue of costs of installing sprinklers in new homes – around £2800 on average comparable to new heating system or rewiring - is at the crux of the issue. But how much value do we place on human lives?

A 2005 review by the UK Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government argued that research suggested that it would not be cost-effective to provide sprinklers in new homes, but that it would be reasonable to provide them in blocks of flats over 30 metres in height and in certain types of care homes.

This is likely to change as a result of the Grenfell Tower enquiry and, at a minimum, the height of buildings which require sprinklers could be reduced to the 18m level currently applying in Scotland. Some will argue that it should fall further to ensure that all three storey buildings have sprinkler systems fitted.

Regulation in Scotland to require sprinklers in care homes, hostels, hotels and other places of multiple occupancy in Scotland was tightened a few years ago, following the number of lives lost in the fire at the Rosepark nursing home in Uddingston, Lanarkshire. The same safety arguments that convinced politicians of the need for sprinklers in care homes apply equally to residential properties.

So is there a case for UK wide regulation to make sprinklers mandatory in all new build houses? I would say yes. Aside from Grenfell Tower, there is a steady, sorrowful stream of news stories each year about deaths at home as a result of fire and smoke inhalation.

Smoke alarms are already installed in new homes as standard though constant reminders, through newspaper and TV advertising, it seems, are necessary to have householders regularly check their batteries.

And whilst some homeowners are concerned about the possibility of their homes being flooded as a consequence of a faulty sprinkler system, the fact is that a properly installed and maintained system should represent only a very low risk of flooding. A soggy carpet is a small price to pay for saving a family’s lives.

Indeed, the statistics show that, in the incidence of fire, a sprinkler system will reduce the damage to a property by an average of 80% and in 95% of cases only one sprinkler is required to tackle a blaze.

Cost is the real issue though, since while the costs of installing sprinklers - of the order of £2,000 to £5,000 depending on size – or around 1% of the total build cost of a new home - this is a cost that, through lower insurance premiums, is capable of being recouped by the householder within four years. By way of comparison, a fire engine costs around £50,000 per year to run, while a full time fire crew costs around £770,000 per year outside London.

So, is this not a small price to pay for the many lives that can be saved as a direct result of installing sprinklers in homes? In Vancouver, Canada, sprinklers have been 100% effective in preventing fire deaths in new homes. They have been compulsory since 2011 in all new homes built in Wales.

The picture is made more complex, however, by the economics of the housebuilding sector. With recent significant rises in the costs of building materials and a skills shortage set to be exacerbated by Brexit, housebuilders are already wary about building houses where their margins are squeezed.

That there is a screaming need for more new houses is indisputable; equally, it is hard to argue that extra costs of installing sprinkler systems in all new houses increases builders’costs.

Following its 2005 review a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "New regulation on housing needs to be balanced and proportionate."

"Making sprinklers compulsory in all new homes would add an estimated £2,000 to £3,000 to the regulatory cost of a new-build home, meaning fewer new homes, making home ownership less accessible especially for first-time buyers, and potentially pushing up rents in the private rented sector."

And there you have it. Further investigation of the position in Wales and further drawing the attention of local and national governments to the issue can only be of value. Let’s hear what the Grenfell enquiry has to say.

Andrew McFarlane is a Consultant to DM Hall, Chartered Surveyors, and a specialist in building surveying (andrew.mcfarlane@dmhall.co.uk).