Balcony fire safety: an urgent issue for building owners and homeowners

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Balcony fire safety: an urgent issue for building owners and homeowners

Whilst the property market has been experiencing a mini boom since the end of the first national lockdown, thousands of apartment owners are finding themselves unable to sell or remortgage due to combustible materials on the exterior of their building. In many cases, this relates to decking on balconies which is not compliant with fire safety regulations introduced in the wake of the Grenfell disaster.

On 22 January 2020, the Government published an Advice Note (superseding AN14 and all other previous Advice Notes) which states that the owners of all multi-storey, multi-occupied residential buildings should investigate and remedy the risks of combustible materials, focusing on complying with Part B4 of the Building Regulations. As a result, many building owners are replacing existing materials.

With vast numbers of existing apartment buildings potentially including combustible external materials, buyers and their mortgage lenders have encountered difficulties confirming whether they are safe. In December 2019, the External Wall Fire Review (EWS1) process was launched by UK Finance and the Building Societies Association (BSA), and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). The EWS1 is a survey that assesses whether a property contains materials that are potentially dangerous, providing clarity to lenders and peace of mind for homeowners and buyers.  It confirms that a building has been assessed for safety by a suitably qualified and competent professional.

Although EWS1 is not currently a legal requirement, mortgage lenders are unwilling to lend without evidence that the property is compliant with EWS1, leading to sales falling through or going on hold for numerous leaseholders. Many leaseholders are also facing rising costs in insurance, legal fees and mortgage rates, as they are unable to remortgage once their fixed terms end. Until a building has an EWS1 form and certificate of compliance, most mortgage lenders will value apartments at £0 and refuse to lend.

EWS1 Assessment

The EWS1 form must be completed by a fully qualified member of a relevant professional body within the construction industry, with sufficient expertise to identify the relevant materials. Following a building survey, the inspector will select options A or B on the EWS1 form. Option A has three sub-options and Option B has two sub-options.

Option A concludes that external wall materials are unlikely to support combustion:

SUB-OPTIONASSESSMENTIMPLICATIONS FOR MORTGAGE LENDERS
A1No attachments whose construction includes significant quantities of combustible materialsSatisfactory for mortgage lenders
A2An appropriate risk assessment of the attachments confirming no remedial works are requiredSatisfactory for mortgage lenders
A3Notify the client organisation that an appropriate risk assessment of the fire risk of the attachments might be requiredRequires further investigation in the form of a separate fire risk assessment

Option B concludes that combustible materials are present in the external wall:

SUB-OPTIONASSESSMENTIMPLICATIONS FOR MORTGAGE LENDERS
B1The fire risk is sufficiently low that no remedial works are required.Satisfactory for mortgage lenders
B2An adequate standard of safety is not achievedUnsatisfactory for mortgage lenders

Numerous existing apartment buildings include balconies with combustible timber or composite decking which would result in options B2 or A3 being marked on the EWS1. In these circumstances, the decking needs to be replaced with a non-combustible alternative which carries the fire safety rating required by the latest Building Regulations. Materials which are A1 or A2 rated under the Euroclass system are compliant with the regulations.

Neaco have received a huge surge in demand from housing associations, building owners and homeowners requiring replacement flooring for their balconies. We manufacture and install aluminium decking systems which are A1 and A2 rated, providing a fully compliant solution. Using our systems in refurbishment and replacement projects provides a smoother path to EWS1 compliance and peace of mind for all concerned.

Neaco’s decking is also extremely durable: aluminium is corrosive-free and has a recognised design life of at least 60-100 years. Our systems are available in a choice of durable coatings suiting a range of aesthetic requirements. They are quick and easy to install, with no hot works required, and can be precision-cut to bespoke requirements. Lightweight yet high in load bearing capacity, our decking requires minimal structural support due to excellent spanning capabilities.

 

A2 balcony decking fire safety

 

Responsibility for EWS1

The EWS1 assessment is the responsibility of the building owner/housing association, but the resulting form should be available on request to all occupants in that building. If a building owner/housing association has not been proactive in commissioning an EWS1 assessment, homeowners can request that they or the managing agent arrange one, and/or enquire about the external construction of the building. Sellers and buyers should contact the building owner or their agent to ensure this takes place as soon as possible.

The RICS suggests that, if the building owner refuses to carry out the assessment, the local council can provide further advice. The RICS also advises that issue can also be referred to the Fire and Rescue Service. Building owners have a clear responsibility reinforced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government advice. Leaseholders should actively engage with the building owner or their agent to ensure this responsibility is met. The Government intends to introduce a Fire Safety Bill to clarify that the responsibility to consider and mitigate risk falls upon building owners and managers.

Understandably, mortgage lenders do not want to lend money on properties containing materials that pose a risk to the safety and the value of the property. EWS1 is an admirable initiative in supporting vital safety requirements and preventing a repeat of Grenfell, but more needs to be done to support homeowners in securing compliance to address attendant problems with buying, selling and mortgage lending. With forthcoming legislation likely to tighten regulation and formalise legal requirements, building owners and housing associations would be wise to accelerate plans to address safety issues on their properties. Thankfully, non-compliant balcony decking is a problem which is relatively easy to rectify.

 

For further information on compliant design and construction of balconies, please contact Neaco’s team of technical experts by calling 01653 695721 or enquiring via our Contact page.