The answer for high-rise balconies and beyond?

In the wake of Grenfell, Building Regulations have rapidly shifted to a more fire-safe position – Richard Izzard of AliDeck explains how aluminium suppliers have responded quickly to provide an increased range of options for balcony specification

Fire safety is paramount post-Grenfell, the specification of non-combustible materials in the external envelope of high-rise buildings is now mandated in the revised Building Regulations. With balconies clearly defined as ‘specified attachments’ to the external envelope, the new more-stringent regulatory environment requires balcony materials to be equally fire-safe, removing previously common materials, such as timber or composite decking, from the options available to specifiers.

Rather than curse the limitations of these necessary changes, architects and specifiers have rapidly embraced the new opportunities made available to them by the increasingly sophisticated metal balcony component systems that manufacturers have delivered to the market in response to the evolving legislation.

Aluminium in particular has risen to the fore, with several manufacturers reacting to the situation by developing comprehensive aluminium systems for balconies, some of which include decking boards, support joists, pedestals, soffit cladding, balustrades, and more.

What became clear in the aftermath of Grenfell was the real paucity of non- combustible materials for balconies, with timber or composite being the long- established de facto standard materials and little else commonly available. As Approved Document B began to be amended, though, non-combustibility became an absolute requirement and aluminium was soon recognised as the main viable choice.

Off-the-shelf compliance
To satisfy the new regulations, all materials must be certified to EuroClass A1 or A2-s1, d0 ratings. Aluminium easily achieves this standard, and, when powder-coated to Qualicoat standards, no smoke emission and no production of flaming droplets. The compliance guarantee that these fire ratings deliver to specifiers is invaluable, allowing for essentially ‘off-the-shelf’ specification of relevant products and peace-of-mind that proposals are robust and, most importantly, safe.

By specifying aluminium balcony components, an architect can be sure that their design is compliant from conception to construction. Over the last 12 months in particular, it has become clear that architects and designers have recognised and embraced this simple and guaranteed route to compliance.

It has by no means been a smooth transition, though. As regulations began to evolve following Grenfell, and against a backdrop of the unrecognised implications for balcony design, many new and in-progress developments fell between the cracks and were completed with timber or composite decking across their balconies.

We’re still seeing newly completed high and low-rise developments that have non-compliant materials in their balcony and terrace decks. It is a major problem and has resulted in a huge amount of almost brand-new timber or composite decking needing to be stripped out and replaced with a non-combustible alternative, creating large and clearly needless additional expense.

Fortunately, greater clarity was provided to the industry through recent Government Advice Note updates which specifically defined balconies as part of the
external building envelope, resulting in non-compliant specification becoming increasingly less common.

Building a fire-safe future
These new requirements and their associated costs and upheavals are appropriate responses to a genuine and inarguable set of problems within the construction sector, brought to the fore by the Grenfell tragedy.

New legislation is currently before Parliament in the Fire Safety Bill and the Building Safety Bill, the draft texts of each placing a considerable focus on construction methods and practices as well as non-combustibility of materials. When these new laws reach the statute books in due course, a clear and concise framework will hopefully have been achieved to allow the industry to move towards a fire-safe future.

What is certain, however, is that whatever shape the new legislation takes as it travels through Parliament, there will be no backsliding on the outlawing of combustible materials in high-rise new-build developments.

An additional impact on the non-viability of combustible materials was recently recognised in the External Wall Fire Review scheme. Developed by the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors and the Building Societies Association, this scheme (more commonly known as EWS1) was designed to provide lenders with a standard fire survey for buildings above 18 metres in height.

Government advice in January 2020 broadened the scope of affected buildings to essentially all multi-occupancy buildings of any height, leading to mortgage lenders requiring successful EWS1 surveys for many more properties than originally envisioned. This immediately resulted in a new log jam, and potentially years of delays for homeowners and their buyers.

For buildings that fail the EWS1 survey, the only solution is for all combustible materials to be replaced with non-combustible alternatives. While many of these failed buildings have profound fire safety issues affecting multiple aspects of the entire construction, there are not insubstantial numbers of buildings failing simply due to the presence of combustible materials just in balconies. Lenders are simply refusing to accept any risk when it comes to providing mortgages on properties that contain combustible components.

With comprehensive aluminium balcony systems available to directly replace combustible timber or composite decking, this particular issue has been a relatively simple issue to resolve, albeit at considerable expense. It underlines, though, the importance of manufacturers developing complete, off-the-shelf compliant systems for architects and designers to not only solve these issues but to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Safe, strong, sustainable
There are other features beyond non- combustibility that play no small part in aluminium’s overall suitability as the replacement for timber or composite in balconies. Durability, weight, sustainability, and cost are all areas where aluminium performs exceptionally well compared to other non-combustible materials. It’s this comprehensive package of benefits that has made extruded aluminium systems the new de facto standard for balcony, terrace, and walkway design.

Aluminium is strong and highly durable, able to withstand decades of use with minimal wear, yet is only a third of the weight of steel, delivering a low structural load and allowing building designs to be streamlined. A further key property is that it does not corrode or rust, even when exposed to wet environments over many years, and when powder-coat finished provides a near-zero maintenance solution for use in balconies, walkways, and terraces, with just simple surface cleaning required.

In plentiful natural supply and with expected product life spans of up to 60 years, aluminium systems are fast becoming the ideal solution for 21st century architecture. As manufacturers continue to develop comprehensive aluminium product lines for all areas of a building’s construction, the material’s inherent benefits plus its major contribution to fire safety will make it key in specification for much more than balconies and decking.

Richard Izzard is managing director of AliDeck