Glass company calls for better education and enforcement
Tim Kempster is managing director of Wrightstyle, the advanced glazing system supplier. Following a scandalous case in Northern Ireland, he wants to see greater understanding of fire-resistant glazing in the building industry.
This month a fraudster in Northern Ireland was jailed for a year for selling fake fire-resistant glass across Ulster, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Britain. Among his dozens of unwitting victims were hospitals and primary schools all of whom, at considerable cost, will have to make good his wrongdoing.
The police officer in charge said that “the potential loss of life in this case cannot be underestimated.”
As a specialist company in the development, testing and supply of fire-resistant glazing systems for internal and external applications, our overwhelming feeling is one of sadness rather than outrage because many issues of fire safety are still badly understood by too many specifiers in the building industry.
We may have fire safety and building regulations, and fire safety inspections, and all the other tick-box reassurances to say that the buildings in which we live and work our safe, but our experience tells a different and often shocking story.
The Northern Ireland case was one of criminal fraud, supplying standard laminate glass for use in buildings, but passing it off as fire-resistant glass. It was therefore a deliberate crime for which a prison sentence seems appropriate.
But what about the less deliberate omissions in fire safety that could have the same catastrophic consequences in the event of a serious fire? Believe me, when it comes to lazy design, inappropriate sourcing of glazing systems and poor installation, we’ve seen it all.
It’s an interlinked series of issues that we’ve tried to raise awareness of, both here and in the Middle East, because the technical aspects of fire-rated glazing systems are complex – and too many designers and contractors either don’t fully understand them or don’t want to understand them.
The Irish fraudster has gone to jail, but what about the specifiers and contractors who, because of ineptitude rather than falsehood, are also passing off buildings as safe when they are anything but safe?
In one jurisdiction in the Middle East we became aware that our fire certifications were being copied and then applied to glazing systems from other suppliers on other projects. We raised the issue with the government concerned and, from then on, only issued project-specific certification.
Compare that to the UK where fire safety regimes are stricter. Well, up to a point, because once a glazing system is installed, it’s very difficult to identify what kind of glazing system it is. Modern fire-rated systems are designed to seamlessly integrate with non-fire rated systems.
The answer is better documentation and better checking of documentation to ensure that fire-rated glass is where it’s supposed to be. Frankly, sometimes it isn’t.
But the real problem is one that Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig understand: general ignorance. For example, we recently had a customer order and install a fire-rated fixed light and window, and then complain that it was leaking.
Our site engineer found that it had been incorrectly installed and, worse, they had put an aluminium vent into the fixed light – which was not fire rated and therefore rendering the whole certification for our product worthless. The fixed light and window could no longer be classed as fire resistant.
This wasn’t fraud as our customer and their client were unaware of the potential risks they were taking to other people’s lives. But is ignorance of fire safety less culpable than deliberate fraud, if the fire risks are the same?
We regularly see other examples. For example, some designers come to us specifying a fire-rated curtain wall but with a non-fire rated door. We obviously then educate them and would not produce nor quote for something non-compliant – but there are others out there who either don’t understand the implications or don’t care.
The lesson for all specifiers is to purchase fire-rated internal and external systems from a reputable company that has test documentation to prove that their systems will do what they claim. Even better, only deal with companies that have dedicated technical departments able to guide customers through complex compliance issues.
Best of all, only buy advanced glazing systems from companies that can supply test certification for both the frame and the glass because, in a fire situation, the glass will only be as good as its frame, and vice versa. Too often, we have seen fire-rated glass put into a non-rated aluminium frame – completely useless.
The worst offenders, and there are a few, are glass and systems companies who will supply to anyone, but seemingly unconcerned how the systems or materials are used or installed. They, supposedly, are in the fire-resistant glazing market. Isn’t that criminality?
At Wrightstyle, we develop, test, fabricate, supply and install. However, we can also train a customer’s installers on the correct way to install our systems – as it’s crucial that it’s done correctly. The training we provide is free but it’s surprising how many companies turn down our offer on the assumption that installing a fire-rated facade is just the same as any other façade.
The Irish fraudster is now safely behind bars or, indeed, a fire-rated window (unless he supplied it). But wilful ignorance and laziness are just as dangerous, and maybe we should be doing more about those.