Cladding and fire risks

Cladding may be used in both refurbished older buildings (mostly multi-storey) and new builds. Its purpose is to provide insulation and rain screening to walls. Since the Grenfell fire, investigations have revealed many types of cladding as a fire risk.

Why is cladding a fire risk?

Not all cladding is a fire risk – there are many types that are made of non-combustible materials applied directly to the walls of buildings. The most problematical types of cladding are those that are made of panels of material which are fixed to a framework.

Immediately after the Grenfell fire,  it was thought the problem was limited to buildings that had  “ACM” (Aluminum Composite Material) cladding with a flammable insulation.  Subsequent research and investigations found other types of cladding were also potential fire risks – MCM (Metal Composite Material faced with other metals such as zinc, copper, and stainless steel) and HPL (High Pressure Laminate panels made from sheets of wood or paper fibre bonded with resin) in particular. 

 It subsequently became clear that it was not just the materials the cladding was made from that created a fire risk but also the method of fixing the cladding.  Effectively, the gap between the cladding and the main structure of the building created a flue, drawing flames and smoke up the side of the building, spreading fire to other flats.

Further investigations revealed other fire safety risks in some buildings such as inadequate fire doors and escape routes. Issues of balconies made wholly or partially from combustible materials, and inadequate fire escape provision were also uncovered. 

The result was that any block of flats that had full or partial external cladding of any kind, including “spandrel” window panels, rainscreens, solar shading panels or balconies made of combustible materials was drawn into the cladding crisis.

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Improperly fixed claddingJohn GilbertCladding acting as a flue drawing flames and smoke up side of building

Other forms of cladding and external wall systems were also found to have been fixed without adequate “fire stopping” to prevent this flue effect being created. 

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Fire stoppingJohn GilbertRed shows where firestopping is required to prevent flues being created

The subsequent mortgage crisis

Once cladding and these other issues were identified as potential fire risks, lenders required those buying flats to prove that their buildings were safe.  A process of fire safety surveys evolved. Flat owners whose buildings had any kind of external wall system, either partial or extensive, or balconies made of combustible materials, found themselves in a position where they had to obtain a satisfactory EWS1 (External Wall System) Form to show to lenders.  The EWS1 form identified those buildings lenders were happy to offer mortgages on and those which required further, more expert, fire safety surveys. 

Flat owners in buildings that had cladding found it hard to sell their properties without these surveys.

In Scotland, the situation made worse by the fact that there are multiple owners of each building, each of whom might need a separate EWS1 Form.

What is the problem with getting EWS forms completed?

The EWS1 form needs to be completed by a suitably qualified person and there are not enough surveyors who have the appropriate fire safety related qualifications.  The government has helped provide specialist training for another 500 surveyors and the first few are now going through this training.

The surveyor also needs to have sufficient Professional Indemnity Insurance (PII).   Effectively, they will need enough cover to pay for the complete cost of rebuilding ALL the properties they have surveyed and any potential loss of life that might occur in such a fire.  This is clearly a huge sum of money and the required level of cover is proving extremely hard to get.  This is another matter that the government is trying to find a solution to.

Scottish Government proposals – the Single Building Assessment

The Scottish Government recently stepped in with proposals that they would fund a single assessment for every building. The aim is that these free Single Building Assessments will be multi-purpose:

  • providing the evidence that lenders require, allowing owners to sell their properties more easily;
  • looking at all fire risks, not just cladding
  • helping owners deal with common building insurance issues;
  • providing information to prioritise the remediation programme;
  • Once completed, this will mean owners do not need an EWS1 Form to sell. 

It’s not compulsory that owners get the Single Building Assessment but your building cannot be entered into the subsequent government supported remediation programme unless you do so. As the Single Building Assessment is free, you should have few difficulties getting the majority of owners to agree. However, you may still need to do some work to contact all owners and gather up enough consent.

The Single Building Assessment is going to be phased with the aim of dealing with the highest risk properties first.

The pilot phase

The Scottish Government is looking for Expressions of Interest for the pilot phase of the programme from owners of buildings where there is already an existing Cladding Risk Assessment (CRA), Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) or one or more completed External Wall System (EWS)1 Forms. Only one Expression of Interest is needed per building so check whether your factor or Residents Association already has the task in hand before completing the form.   The deadline for the pilot phase has now passed. Please sign up to our newsletters to get information on when and how you can apply to take part in the full programme.

Subsequent phases

The roll out of the Single Building Assessment is proposed to be phased as follows:

  1. Buildings with an existing cladding or fire risk assessment that highlight risk to life not already included in the pilot programme.
  2. Buildings with Metal Composite Cladding
  3. Buildings High Pressure Laminate cladding
  4. Buildings with Timber Cladding
  5. Buildings with other combustible cladding types
  6. Any other buildings with external wall systems

In each of these groups, the programme will start with the tallest buildings and work their way to the lower rise.

More about Single Building Assessments

Government Q&A on Single Building Assessments

RICS Proposals

Shortly before the separate Scottish Government proposal, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) published new guidance on when an EWS1 form would be needed.  This new guidance means that lower rise buildings with less risky types of cladding will no longer need EWS1 Forms.  This will allow the resources available for carrying out specialist surveys to be focused on more problematic properties. The impact of this announcement has been somewhat overshadowed in Scotland by the Single Building Assessment but it may be of use to some home owners who need to sell quickly.

Recent RICS guidance reducing the number of EWS1 Forms required

The aim of the revised guidance to surveyors about when an EWS1 form is required is to reduce the number of properties which need the form completed by eliminating the least risky properties from the process.

Buildings which definitely need an EWS1

Buildings over 6 storeys in height which have any cladding or curtain walling of any material

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Building over 6 storeysJohn GilbertA building over 6 storeys with any kind of cladding requires an EWS1 Form completed
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EWS1 Form requiredJohn GilbertAnother building over 6 storeys with any kind of cladding requires an EWS1 Form completed

Buildings of 5 or 6 storeys if they have either

  • Significant amounts of any type of cladding (over a quarter of the wall area)or
  • Any ACM, MCM or HPL cladding or
  • Have balconies that are stacked one above the other vertically AND have combustible decking or are linked to each other by combustible materials

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Building of 5-6 storeysJohn GilbertA building over 6 storeys with any kind of cladding requires an EWS1 Form completed

Buildings of 4 storeys or fewer if they have any ACM, MCM or HPL cladding

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Not requiring an EWS FornJohn GilbertBuilding of 4 storeys or less and not clad with ACM/MCM or HPL so not requiring an EWS1 form

Buildings NOT requiring an EWS1 Form as of April 2021

  • Buildings over 18m that meet current building regulations
  • Buildings made of concrete panels with concrete balconies
  • Traditional blockwork and brickwork cavity wall or solid wall construction buildings with concrete and brickwork balconies
  • 4 story or lower buildings that have timber cladding, terracotta or brick slip on the walls or that have balconies.

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Brick slip claddingJohn GilbertNo EWS1 Form required if on building of 4 storeys or under

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Timber claddingJohn GilbertNo EWS1 Form required if on building of 4 storeys or under

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Terracotta CladdingJohn GilbertNo EWS1 Form required if on building of 4 storeys or under

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Concrete panelJohn Gilbertdo not require an EWS1 form

Does an EWS1 Form mean my block is safe from fire?

While buildings may not need an EWS1 form now, they may still need some remediation work in the future. However, this is immediate good news for the owners of less risky flats and is indirectly useful to those who own flats where the presence of cladding increases the fire risk.

It is mostly buildings over 11m in height (4 story and above) that are affected. Lower buildings that are used for vulnerable residents, such as care homes, have also been drawn into the issue.

The key points assessors were advised to look out for are:

  • partial cladding that extends over more than one flat or fire separation area - so vertical strips of cladding are likely to be more dangerous than horizontal bands
  • partial cladding that covers any opening into the building such as a duct or vent
  • cladding over or around entrances and exits where fire or falling pieces of burning material could prevent people evacuating the building
  • cladding that is in reach of people who might deliberately set fire to it
  • cladding near to car parking areas
  • balconies that may be constructed from combustible materials or have such materials around them and that might be set on fire by people smoking, having BBQs or using outdoor heaters.

So even if you don’t need an EWS1 form to sell your flat now, you may still need to carry out remedial building works if your building meets any of the criteria in the Scottish Guidance set out above. 

Why is this even more of a problem in Scotland?

In a nutshell, it’s due to the way we own flats in Scotland.

In England, the majority of flats are leasehold – the block is owned by a company or individual and the flat “owners” are actually tenants who have purchased a very long tenancy.  There may be many leaseholders in a block but just one owner to commission the EWS.  In Scotland, property law is different and people own flats outright.  So many more surveys may be needed in Scotland, even though the survey is for the whole building, not just the one flat.

Some property developers have now commissioned EWS surveys, as have some factors.

More information

The Scottish Government has set up a number of working parties which have looked both at the mortgage / lending issue and at the technical issues. The main output of the Technical Advice Group so far has been a draft Scottish Advice Note. Consultation responses to this document have suggested further clarification is required – especially the addition of diagrams and illustrations.

Scottish Government Guidance on external wall cladding

Who can help me?

Due to the technical nature of the work, and the fact that almost every building will require an individual solution, this is not a situation on which Under One Roof Scotland can offer a lot of technical advice – nor is this an issue which can be tackled by owners, or even factors, without specialist expert help. 

Your first port of call should be your Factor or Property Manager to see if they can commission a fire safety assessment and EWS for your building.  If you don’t have a factor / property manager, or they are not co-operative, please let us know.  We can’t promise to deal with the situation but it will help us to know if this is a major issue that requires action.

The High Rise Scotland Action Group represents affected owners. Their co-ordinator, Chris Ashurst, has attended many of the Scottish Government’s Working Group meetings and has a good handle on the issues.

Join forces with the High Rise Scotland Action Group  

There is also a register of qualified experts.

Institute of Fire Engineers Register

Tenement Legislation

There has been some concern about whether dealing with cladding counts as improvement work which requires 100% of owners to agree - “safety” is not explicitly mentioned in the Tenements Act, and the Duty to Maintain refers only to “support and shelter”, so some feel there is room for doubt.

We’ve been looking at how useful tenement legislation is to owners in this position.  In law, all flats of any kind of construction or age are classed as tenements and the Tenements Scotland Act 2004 (T(S)A 2004)applies

It’s our view that surveys and inspections count as tenement management which, under T(S)A 2004, is classed as maintenance for the purposes of decision making. This means that one or two owners in a block objecting to the Single Building Assessment being carried out will not be able to stop surveys going ahead.

We also feel that the vast majority of recladding projects can be counted as replacement work - which also counts as maintenance as far as decision making is concerned.  Even if there is an element of improvement in the work, this is just incidental to the replacement and doesn’t affect the decision making process.

Maintenance decisions can be taken by a majority of owners - but do check your own Title Deeds provisions as these will take priority over tenement legislation.