Cavity Barriers - Persimmon's review

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Housing & Regeneration Article

16 January, 2020

In light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2018, fire safety should be at the forefront of the minds of developers and home builders alike.

Following the findings of an independent review being published in December 2019, housing developer Persimmon has been subjected to heavy criticism after a significant number of its new build properties were found to have been constructed with missing or incorrectly installed fire protection measures.

As a result the developer, who builds over 16,000 homes each year, commissioned an independent review in April 2019, which sought to assess the effectiveness of its own processes and procedures. Persimmon's decision to carry out the review coincided with its new focus on improving its approach to customer care and eliminating cases of poor workmanship.

The Review

The review was undertaken by Stephanie Barwise, a QC at Atkinson Chambers, who specialises in civil engineering and construction disputes. In particular, the review sought to evaluate the following areas:

  • Customer care approach, systems and culture;
  • Snagging and finish rectification processes;
  • Speed and consistency of response to issues;
  • Construction inspection regimes;
  • Quality assurance processes;
  • Advertising and marketing protocols; and
  • Alignment of governance and incentives in meeting customer outcomes.

The Findings

In an effort to ensure transparency, Persimmon published the findings of the review on its website. These were split into nine key areas. However, those relating to "cavity barriers" have caused the most controversy and concern.

Cavity barriers are pieces of fire-stopping material which are installed within building cavities. They are designed to delay the speed at which fire can spread. Building regulations legally require new homes to be built with fire protection measures to delay the spread of fire - such measures can include cavity barriers.

The review, in no uncertain terms, stated:

"Persimmon has a nationwide problem of missing and/or incorrectly installed cavity barriers in its timber frame properties, first discovered in October 2018".

In terms of determining the reasoning behind the failure, the review found that:

"The cavity barrier problem is a manifestation of a lack of supervision and inspection of the way in which building work is carried out both by Persimmon's own labour and Persimmon's sub-contractors."

Criticism was also aimed in the review at the Home Builders Federation's star rating system. The system, which is based on customer satisfaction surveys, was accused of having a "disconnect" between its star ratings and "true build quality", after one of Persimmons highest five star rated companies had the highest incidences of missing or incorrectly installed fire barriers.

Recommendations

The review was very clear in setting out the next steps for Persimmon. The implementation of the following action was recommended:

Persimmon appoint a reputable fire engineer to ascertain what further steps it should take to:

  1. Satisfy itself that it has correctly identified the extent and nature of the problem in its existing properties
  2. Ensure that its future builds are fire safe;
  3. Instructing a fire engineer to also consider Persimmon's other build types;
  4. Carrying out spot checks on site to ensure all missing or incorrectly installed cavity barriers are retrofitted; and
  5. Consider adopting a Group Build Policy, which could include inspections incorporating photographs with embedded data, such as GPS coordinates and date and time.

Action

Firstly the transparency of the review and it's findings by Persimmon is commendable - this open and honest approach is very brave and we anticipate will be welcomed by purchasers also.

Persimmon has also been proactive in its approach to rectifying the issues with the cavity barriers when they were first discovered in October 2018, prior to the commissioning of the independent review.

In addition to conducting over 16,000 inspections of its properties, Persimmon has also responded by:

  • Implementing a rigorous structured customer engagement regime;
  • Producing detailed guidance on the installation of cavity barriers for employees;
  • Introducing a specific set of cavity barrier inspection checklists;
  • Introducing toolbox talks for relevant employees;
  • Appointing a leading independent fire engineer, ARUP;
  • Monitoring progress on a weekly basis by senior management, which includes the Group CEO and Board.

Most importantly perhaps, Persimmon has altered its building process. Carpenters rather than bricklayers are now responsible for installing cavity barriers to ensure a full visual inspection can take place. Also, given that one instance reported in the review was where it was believed missing cavity barriers had been retrospectively fitted, only to be found by Persimmons Fire Risk Assessor that they had not, Persimmon are looking at including photographic reports / logs as part of the installation process. They have also implemented an internal audit procedure, to re-assess a sample of properties on each affected development, to ensure that the possibility of inspection errors are mitigated.

Conclusion

A statement published on Persimmon's website, does suggest that rectifying the issues with the cavity barriers is still a high priority on the developer's agenda:

"These cavity barriers are only one of a suite of fire protection measures which are incorporated in the homes that we build in accordance with current Building Regulations, but we are taking concerted action to address the issue."

The findings of the review will hopefully be a lesson learned for Persimmon, whilst also serving as a reminder to other developers that fire safety is paramount.

For more information contact Jennifer Hankinson in our Construction & Infrastructure department via email or phone on 01254222417. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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