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Resident danger

Anthony Cassidy, Health, Safety & Fire Technical Manager at Bureau Veritas with advice on managing fire safety in a change of use building

Referred to as the ‘greatest challenge facing London today’ by the Greater London Authority, the housing shortage in the City and the South East in particular has led to the rise in change of use buildings. Primarily, the increased demand for residential flats, combined with the slowdown of the office market has resulted in many developers looking for opportunities to convert office premises into residential dwellings.

Whilst alleviating the housing crisis, there are considerations around managing fire safety in a change of use building, as requirements for residential buildings are different to other types of building. Some developers and FMs working for smaller operations, may not be aware of this, especially as planning permission is not always required in change of use buildings; which poses a potential risk factor in terms of fire safety. As an added issue, these redevelopments or refurbishments often happen at a rapid pace which, alongside potential loopholes within the fire safety order and planning process, can pose a potential fire risk for residents.

Generally speaking, planning permission is required when change of use works include what the Government defines as ‘development’, which includes but is not limited to ‘material change of use’. In theory this incorporates change of use buildings, as the transition from say an office block (deemed a class B building) to a residential unit (deemed a class C building) would constitute a material change of use. A change of use where the before and after use falls within the same class would be permissible without planning permission; for example changing a shop to a café (both within class A). The lines become blurred however as there are certain circumstances that are the exception to this system, where developers may be permitted development rights which allow change of use, without having to make a planning application. The government-permitted development rights scheme allows certain change of uses to be carried out without planning permission in these circumstances and an example is change of use from an office to a residential unit. Although it makes the process more straightforward for the developer (notwithstanding that they are still required to submit a Prior Approval application with planning drawings and supporting documentation, as well as seek consent from the local council for change of use), the consideration around adapting and/or installing correct fire safety features adequate for a residential dwelling is paramount.

It is important that both the landlord and any other organisations responsible for managing the refurbishment process in a change of use building are aware of their fire safety duties and are mindful that these loopholes are not a means to cut corners. Additional legislation is in place to protect occupants of residential dwellings when it comes to fire safety, compared with other types of building use. All building refurbishment work falls under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which outlines what is required in order to comply with fire safety law. The Housing Act 2004 was also designed to impose more stringent housing standards to protect occupants of residential dwelling and includes fire as a category hazard to be assessed. There is ample guidance available around fire safety management, including but not limited to the Guidance on fire safety provisions for certain types of existing housing produced by the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS).

There are also considerations around the building itself. Older buildings may have outdated fire risk assessments and fire preventative measures in place, which therefore must be revised. Refurbishments will need to follow the same stringent fire safety and fire risk assessment requirement as new builds and in these scenarios it can be more difficult to retrofit a solution that meets fire safety law. There may also be features in a building that were suitable for its original use but are not for residential use. Potentially safety-compromising scenarios to consider include things like compartmentation.

The means of escape also may not be suitable given the potential changes in occupancy figures. Additional fire risks may be introduced too, through communal cooking and use of cooking equipment in small confined bed-sit-type rooms; also items such as heaters may be brought in by residents to dry clothing where the provision of communal facilities are inadequate. Even small things such as lighting candles can pose an additional risk, which is why on this basis safety features such as automatic fire detection will certainly need reviewing.

The same considerations should be applied to the higher education community, where rapid refurbishments are often done in order to meet a short-term need but the long-term use and suitability of these buildings are not always considered.

As such, fire risk assessments must be carried out on all change of use buildings before passing building control and a building is occupied. This is critical, as in a worst case scenario, if fire safety does not meet requirements, building control will not be passed and if a building is occupied, an emergency evacuation procedure will be implemented until remedial work has been done. In order to avoid this, developers, FMs, landlords and all persons responsible for the refurbishment of a change of use refurbishment should be aware of their obligations and always seek expert advice when it comes to fire safety.

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