ROOFING PROJECTS: THE FIRE RISK & SAFE ROOFING SPECIFICATION
How do educational establishments manage their greatest risk when undertaking planned roofing maintenance or even emergency repairs? It may surprise some to know that the greatest risk posed by such events, is FIRE. As author of this article I have spent over 40 years in the roofing industry, first as a contractor and more recently (the last 15 years) as part of a professional consultancy practice, specialising in ‘the building envelope’, roofs, walls and windows. Our own ‘soft’ research has shown that in the last 4 years alone, – since 2014, – there have been serious fires on school roofs at the rate of more than 1 per month, where roof refurbishment or repair works have been taking place. Over 50 serious fires in just 4 years.
By pure luck alone, there have been no serious injuries resulting from these fires, but the damage to buildings has in some cases closed whole schools down for several months.
From where does this significant risk emanate?
Usually ill-thought out roofing specifications that have set out terms such that the installing contractor must use roofing systems that require the use of propane fuelled gas torches (naked flames). This is as part of the installation process, in areas that should be considered a high fire risk.
More recently the roofing industry recognising these risks have started (belatedly some may feel) to introduce processes that mitigate these risks.
Again, the author was as the forefront of the push for the NFRC Safe Roofing Specification Checklist. You may discover this has been adopted and modified by some material suppliers who offer to write Safe Roofing Specifications, however this alone does not go far enough and the risk remains high.
Some system suppliers have sought to profit from the perceived issues of using torch-on roofing membranes.
Do they supply the answer the schools need? NO!
is the simple answer and often they indirectly increase the risk by giving the impression they are the solution. Cold applied liquid roofing systems, still require dry roof surfaces and these are traditionally achieved using propane gas fuelled torches. They also often use torch-on vapour control layers and torch on insulation separator and/or carrier membranes. Giving merely the illusion of being flame free. Synthetic plastic or rubber-based membranes that maybe require only hot air welded or solvent welded laps present similar issues to cold applied liquid membranes.
Some of the more responsible contractors have introduced robust measures of their own and have clear plans setting out areas of risk, have properly trained operatives and state of the art flame free roofing equipment that can produce the required amount of heat. Such contractors are not the norm. RAM Building Consultancy have produced a Fire Risk Video which highlights both the current most common practice and compares it with methods that can remove these risks.
So how do you tackle this issue?
It can and should begin at the initial survey stage. Engage a competent person who can demonstrate their knowledge of not only roofing works, but also all the associated risks relating to the installation techniques. Many roof system suppliers may claim this level of competence, however in most cases this should be challenged, as often the ‘veneer’ is thin and almost certainly prejudiced by the product they promote. Contractors are generally more experienced than system suppliers, however some may be found to be reactionary and not willing to recognise the risks they feel they have “..always managed without a problem..”[sic].
General Building Surveyor/Consultancy practices most often ‘sub’ this out to one of the aforementioned; roofing system supplier and/or contractor. There are however, a number of specialist consultants who may be best placed to give you the best advice on this subject matter. Fire Risk is without doubt the most important consideration, however; value for money, correct system selection and importantly correct installation techniques, all need independent professional assessment.
Perhaps surprisingly for those Academies with RPA insurance protection, any advisor needs to be aware of and should have assessed how RPA insurance can be equally effective or ineffective when combining with standard building trade forms of contract, most typically JCT Contracts. The levels of protection under RPA can be confusing and even dangerously misleading for parties not aware of how the contract should be set up.Given that damage by fire, is likely to be the most expensive claim insurers will face (other than personal injury claims), it is critical these interactions between forms of legal contract and insurance terms do not leave any party unduly exposed.
Roofing System Suppliers are unlikely to have any liability for writing a specification that ultimately contributes to the cause of a fire on site. Their service is free, the cost is disguised in what they charge the contractor for the product. Thus, removing them from a direct contractual link with the end user.
The majority of Contractors are largely unaware that if their actions cause a fire, they are almost certainly (dam certain! if the claim is big enough) not adequately insured and most likely not insured at all. The contractor insurance policy will contain a clause that states something similar to “..the contractor is not to use naked flames in areas where combustible materials are present..”, thus by default they cannot have a fire and have complied with this insurance term.
Who has the answers you need? This subject is so important it cannot be left to the ‘nearly qualified’, only truly specialist consultants with a demonstrable background in the precise subject matters; roofing, fire risk and insurance can offer you the security your site and your occupants need.
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