“There is no evidence” said Sajid Javid, then communities secretary, told a packed Parliament in March, “that this is a systemic issue.”
Mr Javid was reacting to the news that fire doors taken from Grenfell Tower were seriously below standard – resisting fire for just half the minimum time required by building regulations.
Four months on this quote looks increasingly like wishful thinking. There may have been no evidence that it was a systemic issue. But there was also no evidence that it was not.
Major fire door manufacturer Masterdor announced last week that it is removing two doors from sale as they also didn’t meet the required standard when tested. The company has contacted between 100 and 150 customers to let them know – including various social landlords.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is testing doors from 20 other providers. Industry sources claim other products have already been quietly withdrawn from sale.
“We’ve spent years campaigning that there is a systemic issue,” says Iain McIlwee, chief executive of the British Woodwork Federation. “Products are being used on the basis of test reports and that doesn’t give us reassurance that something is consistently made.”
The fire door issues at Grenfell emerged slowly. Experts speculated from quite soon after the blaze that there may have been a failure: the speed with which smoke and flame spread through the building suggested deep problems with its internal fire protection.
But it wasn’t until March that the government announced that three doors – two undamaged from the tower and one from the same batch – had failed tests.
These doors were made by Manse Masterdor, a company which no longer exists.
It sold its assets to Synseal in 2014, changed its name to Lichfield Investments and appointed a voluntary liquidator in February – a month before the news about the Grenfell fire doors broke.
Synseal meanwhile set up a new company with these assets called Masterdor. When the Metropolitan Police were testing the Manse Masterdor doors, Masterdor provided some from its stock for comparison. It has now announced timber doors and its glass reinforced plastic doors failed.
The Manse Masterdor doors were used elsewhere in Kensington and Chelsea and a number of other London boroughs – including Barking and Dagenham, Barnet and Hackney.
The addition of Masterdor brings between 100 and 150 other landlords into the frame.
A full list will not be released by government or Masterdor, but at a conservative estimate we are already talking about tens of thousands of doors.
Currently the advice is not necessarily to rip them out. The National Fire Chiefs Council has advised building owners with these doors to redo risk assessments.
This has raised some eyebrows. “it depends on the magnitude of the failure doesn’t it,” says one expert source who declines to be named. “My personal view would be if it’s a major failure, replace the door.”
“I think you need to do it on risk based appraoch, I would accept that,” says Jon O’Neill, managing director of the Fire Protection Association. “But that specification is a minimum specification, and it would seem very strange to me that you would want a lesser degree of fire protection.”
Another source adds that fire risk assessors must consider the risk to the whole building from defective fire doors – in a fire they are there not just to protect the residents inside the flat but to stop smoke spreading out into communal areas. The devastating consequences of a failure of this kind were displayed at Grenfell.
There are echoes of the cladding crisis currently gripping the building industry, where cladding once believed to be compliant has now failed tests and the official advice from government is to “seek professional advice” rather than immediately strip it off.
So how have we reached this position?
The issue appears to raise a question about the process of testing, and more pertinently, how does the simple fact that a product has passed an official test guarantee that it is safe for use?
In a nutshell, building guidance requires that fire doors on flat entrances meet the standard of FD30. This means thirty minutes fire resistance and is proved through a relatively simple test – the door is placed in a gas furnace for 30 minutes and fire must not pass from one side to the other within this time. Testing is offered by both of the UK’s major test houses: the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and Exova, as well as a number of other providers.
The doors Masterdor has withdrawn from sale were successfully tested. In a statement, the company said the products were “previously tested successfully through an external test house, resulting in the provision of appropriate fire test certificates and assessments”.
Neither Masterdor nor MHCLG will reveal which house carried out the original test on the Masterdor products – although the BRE has confirmed it was not them. Nonetheless, this test pass was all that is required by the official guidance to get the door to market.
So what went wrong? This taps into a long-standing debate in the fire door world – third party accreditation.
The question is simply, even though one door has passed a test, what assurances are there for the next hundred thousand or so after that? For design reasons, there are many small changes to doors which occur which can affect fire performance.
“We advocate that the only way to demonstrate that a product meets and continues to meet a standard is third party certification,” says Mr McIlwee of the BWF which, it is necessary to point out, runs a large certification scheme.
However, this view is not unique to his organisation. “The first question is were they [Masterdor] part of a third party accreditation scheme or not?” adds another expert who declines to be named.
“The key issue is third party accreditation,” adds David Sugden – former chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum.
Original Source: Inside Housing