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Wed, 8 July 2020

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Fire safety debate must be informed by net zero facts

Fire safety debate must be informed by net zero facts

Safety is paramount, so it is vital that the debate on fire protection is informed by the facts and not misperceptions about the carbon performance of concrete because far from being a threat, concrete is very much a part of the solution to achieving net zero, says Chris Leese | Credit: MPA

Chris Leese, Director of MPA UK Concrete | Mineral Products Association

4 min read Member content

Buildings are one of the main sources of carbon emissions in the UK, something which has to be tackled if we are to reach net zero. Simultaneously it’s critical that we take every opportunity to build safety into all new buildings in order to protect lives. It is possible to deliver both

The Government has recently concluded a consultation on banning flammable materials from the external walls of residential buildings of 11m or more in height, lowering it from the existing threshold of 18m.

MPA UK Concrete, the group representing the concrete industry, supported this change because of the inherent fire risk posed by use of flammable products in buildings, and the availability of sustainable, non-combustible alternatives such as  concrete.

Indeed, it is the view of UK concrete that the ban does not go far enough and should extend to banning the use of combustible materials in a broader range of building types and including the structure of the building itself.

As long as regulations allow for potentially combustible materials to be used in the construction of multiple occupancy buildings where many people, including the potentially vulnerable, sleep, then we continue to knowingly build more and unnecessary risk into the heart of the built environment.

The risks have been vividly illustrated following a spate of very serious fires in multiple occupancy buildings constructed using combustible materials, including student accommodation in Bolton, a hotel in Bristol, a residential building in London and a timber framed care home at Beechmere in Crewe.

This cannot be an acceptable state of affairs.

Although the consultation period on the proposed 11m ban has now closed there are groups who continue to push hard for the increased use of timber in construction. 

They claim that any increased regulation, which has the effect of reducing combustible materials including timber from new buildings, will restrict designers from making the most sustainable choices and hence jeopardise the UK Government’s commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2050.

This argument however surely risks somehow ‘trumping’ fire safety and should not be allowed to influence regulation aimed at protecting people from fire.

Safety is paramount, so it is vital that the debate on fire protection is informed by the facts and not misperceptions about the carbon performance of concrete because far from being a threat, concrete is very much a part of the solution to achieving net zero.

Concrete and concrete products are being used to construct buildings that have a low environmental impact due to lower whole life carbon emissions achieved through superior energy efficiency and reduced maintenance requirements over their long lifetimes.

They also provide other unique benefits such as flood resilience, protection from overheating and 100% recyclability at end of life when a building is eventually demolished.

Cement, a key ingredient of concrete, which represents less than 1.5 per cent of UK carbon emissions against an average of 7 per cent worldwide, is decarbonising faster than the UK economy; switching away from fossil fuels and developing net zero fuel mixes.

Demonstrating the concrete and cement industry’s ongoing commitment, the emerging UK Concrete decarbonisation roadmap will detail innovative solutions to eliminate carbon emissions from production and utilise the properties of concrete to go beyond net zero.

Concrete and concrete products are essential to the creation of safe sustainable buildings and a net zero society.

Achieving net zero will require significant collaborative effort with supportive Government policy measures to go beyond the actions that have already delivered a 53% CO₂ reduction in UK cement and concrete production emissions since 1990.

A ban on all combustible materials in construction would not jeopardise the UK’s commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2050.

Fire safety and climate change are both extremely important issues to consider when designing and constructing a building and it is vital that important regulatory decisions are made having regard to facts.

Concrete and concrete products are essential to the creation of safe sustainable buildings and a net zero society.

The industry has demonstrated that it will continue to decarbonise and support the Government’s net zero target whilst simultaneously providing a safe, non-combustible construction solution for buildings.

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