Soundproofing Floors

Soundproofing Floors

Sound is an issue that affects most of us at some point even if we don’t realize it at the time. How often do you hear the noise of talking or TV from an adjacent room or some walking across the floor above? Soundproofing will greatly reduce these sounds however it must be done correctly.

We commonly come across this issue during refurbishment projects such as conversion of large houses into flats. Guidelines for reduction of sound in all types of properties (new build and conversions) are described in detail in Approved Document E of the Building Regulations. However this might not be how you like to spend your evenings reading such documents!

Sound is classified into two categories – Airborne or Impact. A simple way to determine what type of sound is affecting you is as follows:

1. If you want to stop the sound of a TV or conversation in an adjacent room then you are trying to stop airborne noise.

2. If you are trying to stop the sound of footsteps, objects being dropped or the noise of furniture being moved around then you are trying to stop impact noise.

Or a more technical explanation would be:

Airborne Sound – This occurs when a sound transfers directly from a source to the receiver. Typically this would be through small holes or openings in the construction, along ductwork, or through voids such as ceiling cavities. Airborne noises are conversation, TV noise, music, barking dogs.

Impact Sound – Impact noise is structural vibration, transmitted from a point of impact through a structure and experienced as radiated sound from a vibrating surface. This is commonly caused by an item hitting the floor, from where the impact results in vibrations being transferred through the buildings structure. The most common path for the noise is generally to the ceiling of the lower property or room. Impact noises are footsteps, dropping items on the floor, or children running.

  • a TYPICAL wooden separating floor IS constructed of timber joists and floorboards

This type of floor construction is used in most domestic properties; the typical floor construction will be plasterboard or lathe and plaster ceilings, timber floor joists and wooden floorboards or chipboard flooring over the top. Floors constructed in this way with little or no insulation and no absorbent or resilient layer on the floor will allow airborne and impact noise too easily pass between rooms from one room to another through the floor.

  • HOW WE Stop airborne sound transferring through a floor

Insulating between the floor joists with acoustic insulation will reduce airborne sound transmission through wooden floors. Building Regulations stipulates using 100mm 45kg/m³ insulation between the floor joists as part of a separating floor solution to comply with Part E. Generally we prefer an increased level of soundproofing and we recommend and install a minimum of 80/m³ acoustic insulation slab, the higher density will reduce more airborne noise. Compliance with Part E does not mean sound will not transfer between the floors. The higher density 80kg/m³ insulation slab will block and absorb more airborne noise. However we should note that acoustic insulation should not be confused with rolls of thermal insulation which are lower in density, therefore do not offer the same level of sound insulation.

An example of dense insulation slab  

When we install acoustic insulation between floor joists, we cut the slabs to size using a hand saw, cut them slightly larger than the opening so the slabs will friction fit between the floor joists, ensure the whole area is filled with insulation using any off cuts to fill any small gaps. Using acoustic insulation below the floor will reduce all types of airborne noise.

There are alternative materials available is the client does not want the hassle of lifting floorboards. An alternative material is a high density rubber mat that can be laid over the top of the floorboards to reduce airborne noise. It looks similar to carpet underlay however it is a much denser material….and more expensive!

  • Stop impact sound transferring through a floor

To effectively reduce impact sound through a floor you need to reduce the vibration caused as an item hits the floor. The level of noise that will transmit through the floor depends on the force of the impact, the vibration transmission characteristics of the floor structure and the floor covering.

There are two types of floor soundproofing solutions to reduce impact noise, acoustic matting or floating floors; both solutions will reduce impact noise transferring through wooden and concrete floor structures.

Deciding which type of flooring suits your requirements will depend on certain factors.

A. Floor finish

  • Carpet
  • Laminate
  • Tiled
  • Wooden

B. Height requirements

  • What is the height restriction?
  • What height can you raise the floor?

C. Building Regulations

  • Do you have to meet certain requirements?
  • Use acoustic matting to soundproof floors

Acoustic matting is the most common form of floor soundproofing used to reduce impact noise. These types of products are specifically designed to be used over any floor below most floor finishes including, carpet, wooden floors, laminates and tiled floors. Again similar to a carpet underlay just a denser material.

An example of acoustic underlay

NSSF7+ acoustic underlay mat

This type of flooring can be laid down quickly and easily. The mats are cut with a sharp knife, laid with joints staggered with the edges butted together. A strip of matting can be laid around the perimeter of the room if you are using carpet underlay and carpet.

If you are laying a hard floor finish over the mats you might need to use a layer of 9mm ply or equivalent over the matting to reduce movement.

Acoustic mats can be used to soundproof separating floors to meet the requirements of Approved Document E when combined with acoustic insulation and the correct ceiling construction. We will cover ceilings in another blog post.

  • Floating floors reduce high levels of impact noise

A floating floor refers to flooring that is not mechanically fixed in place with nails or screws. Floating floors are normally supplied as interlocking flooring that has a tongue and groove edge that fit together locking the floor in place, soundproof floating floors have a resilient layer bonded to the underside, this layer is to isolate the floor from the buildings structure, this isolation will reduce sound transmitting through the floor and joists into the room below.

Floating floors can be laid over wooden and concrete floors to reduce high levels of sound and to ensure new build and conversions achieve the requirements of Approved Document E. Floating flooring can be laid either directly onto the joists or over the existing floor.

Install a floating floor in rooms that require the highest level of sound isolation. Floating floors can be used in specialist applications such as recording studios to reduce vibration along the floors from one room to another.

The flooring needs be isolated from the wall to reduce “flanking” noise. Flanking noise is where the sound finds the least path of resistance and travels behind skirting and under the floor down the room below. To prevent this, flanking tape or isolation tape can be fixed between the floor and the skirting to help isolate the flooring from walls. An alternative is to seal around the perimeter of the floor with an acoustic sealant.

Watch out for our next article on soundproofing walls………

Fire Doors – Why they are so important.

This article was published recently in Construction Manager a website of the CIOB. Correctly specified, installed and maintained, fire doors SAVE lives. Don’t gamble with fire safety, it WILL catch you out when you least expect it and when you are least prepared!

 

Why fire doors are so important?
• What to look out for when specifying them
• What the Building Regulations say

The Lakanal House disaster is a stark reminder of the dangers of fire in buildings – and the importance of correctly specifying and installing key products. John Fletcher explains what to look out for when it comes to fire doors.

Photograph: David Askham/Alamy

In July 2009, a terrible fire took hold in a 12-storey block of flats in Camberwell. Six people were killed and at least 20 people were injured. It was the UK’s worst tower block fire.

The inquest into the Lakanal House tragedy closed at Easter this year and legal action is continuing, so there is not much more that can be said at this stage about what went so badly wrong. However, a fire scientist from BRE was able to give some good insights into one of the areas of failure.

Commenting on the fire doors, he told the inquest: “The fire impacted on the front door and on the panel above the front door and on the boxing in under the stairs and on the escape door on to the corridor. The panel above the front door failed very quickly. The boxing in under the stairs failed within two to three minutes after being exposed to fire, and that happened at about 16.50 hours. The front door failed and collapsed into the corridor at about 17.19 hours.”

These facts are alarming and a stark reminder of the potential consequences of poor specification, installation or maintenance of a critical element in fire safety. To avoid a situation like this happening again, all building owners, contractors and construction managers will benefit from further understanding the role of fire doors as well as the demands of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, commonly known as the RRO.

The RRO replaced more than 70 pieces of previous fire legislation, including the old fire certificate. The law now firmly places responsibility for fire safety in commercial and public buildings, including the common parts of flats and houses of multiple occupation, to whoever has day-to-day control of the premises. Each business must appoint a responsible person, whether it be the owner, manager, facilities manager or an expert consultant, to manage the fire risk to the building, including protecting those using the premises and its immediate surroundings.

The emphasis of the RRO is on preventing fires and reducing risk. The Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for the legislation, divides all non-domestic buildings into 11 sections, producing a detailed guide for each. The guides are developed to inform the responsible person on how to comply with the RRO, by helping them to carry out a fire risk assessment of the building and identifying the fire precautions that need to be implemented. The guides are available for download at www.communities.gov.uk/publications/fire/regulatoryreformfire

Why fire doors are so important

All of us who use or occupy any building have a right to expect that we will be safely protected should a fire break out. Fire doors are part of a building’s passive fire protection system, an essential requirement for all public buildings, offices and factories.

They are also a requirement in certain domestic situations, such as in flats, or where a door leads into an integral garage, or in any dwelling where there is a second floor habitable room such as loft conversions or a “room in the roof”.

All rooms in any of these situations are separated from other rooms, or “compartmented”, to keep any fire in the area in which it starts, to protect the occupants (and contents) of other compartments and to provide a safe, protected escape route. This subdivision slows down the spread of fire and smoke and allows occupants to either escape or wait for rescue within a protected area.

The walls, ceilings, entrances and exits are therefore designed to resist the fire for a specified period of time.

How to buy fire doors

Most doors are bought via builders’ merchants and distributors. But a fire door is actually a group of components that are required to perform correctly together in the event of a fire. These components include the door leaf, frame, seals and essential building hardware which are referred to in the door’s fire test evidence. Using the wrong components may have a significant impact on the overall performance of the fire door.

Correct signage is also required on all fire doors installed in non-domestic buildings. Signs should be put on both sides of the door and must clearly indicate that the door is a fire door and any further instructions required such as “Keep Closed” or “Keep Locked”.

Fire doors are rigorously tested and must be fitted with matching components

Doorsets or door assemblies?

Fire doorset BS EN 12519 provides the following definition: a “complete unit consisting of a door frame and a door leaf or leaves, supplied with all essential parts from a single source”. This means that a door leaf is factory pre-hung in its frame, with hinges, glazing system (glass, seal, bead and fixing), fire and (when required) smoke seals, and ironmongery. A fire doorset is a fully finished, engineered unit from a single manufacturer, with all components matched and pre-assembled in the factory and is covered by a single fire certificate. A whole doorset supplied in individual component parts for assembly on site is often referred to as a door kit.

Fire door assemblies BS EN 12519 provides the following definition: a “complete assembly as installed, including door frame and one or more leaves, together with its essential hardware supplied from separate sources”. This means that it is a fire door installation made up from loose, correct, compatible components — consisting of a door leaf, frame, architraves, glazing system, decorative finishes, seals, intumescents, ironmongery and door furniture, sourced from different suppliers and manufacturers, made up on site into the final door assembly. It is the only acceptable alternative to a fire doorset.

Is one better than the other? No. Properly certificated fire doorsets and fire door assemblies will have compatible components that meet the Building Regulations and will work in the event of a fire. So the decision depends on the user’s needs, budget and convenience.

What does matter, though, is that all the information relating to the fire doorset or assembly is handed over to the responsible person, since this will be necessary in future inspections and for any maintenance that may be required.

Fit for purpose?

Manufacturers often make claims that their products are tested and achieve a certain performance level. But there are three ways in which manufacturers can describe their compliance:

Self-declaration Where a manufacturer makes their own claim of conformity by stating that the door, doorset or door component “complies with” or is “designed to” or “tested to” a certain standard.

An increasing number of fire door manufacturers and component manufacturers are making such claims, but these are no guarantee that products will meet the right standards or that they will continue to do so.

Test certificate  A test certificate tells the purchaser that a company’s products have been tested and they have a certificate to prove it. But caution still needs to be taken with this information, as it provides only a snapshot of the product test.

Third-party certification Third-party certification tests and verifies a fire door’s design, performance, manufacturing process and quality assurance from manufacture to installation. The company is independently audited to ensure that all the management and manufacturing processes and systems are in place to ensure consistency with the product that was tested. The product is also subjected to regular scrutiny, with frequent testing taking place on standard products to ensure that the test wasn’t just a once-only event. In the BWF-CERTIFIRE Fire Door and Doorset Scheme, all manufacturers and companies that are licensed to cut an aperture and glaze doors are third-party accredited.

To ensure fire door safety, make sure you only specify or use third-party certificated and accredited doors, frames and components. Check that all components are compatible with the door’s test evidence. Check the certificate is relevant to the door and components that are fitted to the door. Never cut apertures on site.

Stick to the spec

Sadly, “value engineering” brings with it a whole set of new risks when it comes to fire safety. By compromising the original specification in any way, a fire door installation risks failure in the event of a fire. This is one of those areas where sticking to specification, and using only third-party certificated fire doors and components, will actually reduce risk and costs for the construction industry.

Minimum gap should be 3-4mm

There are four main areas where unwary construction managers and their clients may be most vulnerable:

Non-compliance with Building Regulation 38
Not all fire doors satisfy the Building Regulations in the way they might have done in the past.  Where a building is erected or extended, or has undergone a material change of use, and the RRO applies to that building or extension, Regulation 38 of the Building Regulations now requires that a package of fire safety information – “as built” information that records the fire safety design of the building or extension – must be assembled and given to the person responsible for the premises.

The fire safety information provided should include all fire safety design measures in appropriate detail and with sufficient accuracy to assist the responsible person to operate and maintain the building safely. Where a fire safety strategy or a preliminary fire risk assessment has been prepared, these should also be included.

The exact amount of information and level of detail necessary will vary depending on the nature and complexity of the building’s design. Appendix G of Approved Document B, Volume 2, 2006 edition (with 2007 and 2010 amendments) provides a guide for the type of information that should be provided which will depend on the complexity of the building. This information includes, among other details, the locations of:

  • Escape routes;
  • Compartmentation and separation;
  • Fire doors, self-closing doors and other doors with relevant hardware such as panic locks;
  • Specifications of any fire safety equipment, in particular routine maintenance schedules;
  • Any assumptions in the design of fire safety arrangements regarding building management.

Non-compliance with the RRO
Everyone involved in the life of a fire door, from its specification to maintaining it in use, is responsible for that product and its role in protecting property and saving lives. But increasingly it is the client, the building owner, who is receiving punitive fines and even jail terms for non-compliance with the RRO. Installing third-party certificated products, and then ensuring regular maintenance checks by a qualified fire door inspector, is the simplest way to comply with the RRO. Fortunately, the UK has Europe’s first fire door inspection scheme, FDIS, which can put you in touch with inspectors near you.

Lack of adequate insurance protection
Fire losses in the UK now run to £3.4m per day. Unsurprisingly, there is increasing scrutiny on building elements such as fire doors by insurers, brokers, surveyors and loss adjustors. Leading insurers follow
the advice of fire risk experts at RISCAuthority who now require all fire protection products to be third-party certificated and installed by adequately trained specialist installers. Clients are well advised to follow this advice too, to ensure adequate insurance protection and more affordable premiums.

Insufficient protection for life or property
Diligent fire door manufacturers work hard to design and test their products to ensure they perform in a specific way during a fire. Key to this point is that a fire door is not simply the door itself, but includes the associated ironmongery, windows, frame and seals. Any small change to any single component within this setup will impact upon the door’s performance. Attempt to save costs by fitting a fire door to an unspecified frame or to replace the ironmongery, for example, and the fire door will no longer be either compliant or fit-for-purpose.

John Fletcher is manager of the BWF-CERTIFIRE Fire Door and Doorset Scheme tel: 0844 209 2610 firedoor@bwf.org.uk

Fire doors and the Building Regulations

Approved Part B — Fire safety

Part B of the Building Regulations in England and Wales covers fire safety. The latest revision came into effect in April 2007 and is divided into two sections, differentiating between domestic and non-domestic buildings. Flats and apartments are now considered as non-domestic buildings. The Building Standards (Scotland) Technical Handbook takes a similar approach. In Northern Ireland, these issues are covered by Building Regulations Part E.

Part B identifies minimum fire resistance periods for various elements of construction, including fire doors. In a compartment wall that separates buildings, the fire door must match the fire resistance period of the wall containing the door with a minimum period of 60 minutes. In all other situations, a 30-minute fire door (FD30) is allowed. Part B also identifies the use of 20-minute fire doors (FD20) in some circumstances.

However, the BWF-CERTIFIRE Scheme strongly recommends that any fire door should be designed to last a minimum of 30 minutes, so FD20 is no longer manufactured by its member companies.

Approved Document E — Sound resistance

This document explains the minimum sound resistance performance recommended for buildings of multiple occupancy. Where a door separates the occupants of a building, for example the front door of an apartment, the door must maintain the sound performance requirements. Sound performance of a fire door is generally based on the weight, with higher density materials giving more resistance to sound. Acoustic seals may be required on a fire door, including at the threshold.

Approved Document F — Ventilation

In domestic buildings, a ventilation gap totalling 7,600mm² is recommended at the threshold of the door, to allow air movement throughout the building. This measurement is taken from the highest finished floor covering to the bottom edge of the door. For a 762mm wide door, this represents a 10 mm gap, (reducing to 8mm for a 926mm wide door). This can be achieved by making an undercut of 10mm above the fitted floor finish. The gap is likely to be around 3mm for smoke control doors (denoted with an “S” suffix). For non-domestic buildings, the ventilation requirements are likely to be the responsibility of the heating and ventilation designer. However, it is always very important to check the threshold gap details in the manufacturer’s instructions.

Approved Document L — Conservation of fuel and power

Where a fire door divides a heated and unheated area,
it will be required to provide a thermal performance (energy efficiency) that will control the heat leakage. Examples of this are flats with doors leading to common corridors, integral garages or external doors.

Approved Document M — Access to and use of buildings

This document introduces a number of recommendations to improve access to and movement through buildings for disabled persons, including minimum door widths, the use of visual contrasts between doors and their surroundings, minimum opening forces and the provision of vision panels.

Approved Document N — Glazing safety

Safety glass is required in a fire door when located under 1,500mm from floor level or if the smaller dimension of the glazing area is greater than 250mm. This applies to both domestic and non-domestic buildings.

 

With thanks to Construction Manager. Visit their excellent website at www.construction-manager.co.uk. 

Loft Conversions

An interesting article on loft conversions. Although this article refers to London property, the same is true of most other areas in our experience. Where you cannot extend out from your property consider adding a touch of class on top of your property! Speak to us and let us help with your project.

Loft conversions: meet the new generation

Loft conversions used to be predictable and boring, but now interior designers are using them to add light, drama and value to our homes.

Stunning refurbished former church in Tower Hamlets is on the market for £4m through Knight Frank

In the black: a stunning refurbished former church with elegant attic space in Tower Hamlets.

“It can be the lightest, airiest room in the house,” says Tom Howard, an architect with Millar Howard Workshop. “It’s your chance to drink in the London skyline. But so many of them are just sweaty great boxes.”

Loft conversions have been in the London home expander’s armoury for decades, long before kitchen extensions became de rigueur or basements were all the rage.

“The loft conversion was the very first home improvement that one saw, going back 30 years,” says Lindsay Cuthill, the head of residential sales in south-west London for Savills. “Loft companies have designed thousands and thousands of them. They are in their second or third generation. There is no problem that they haven’t encountered.”

In addition, the men in overalls attack the conversion from the outside, via scaffolding, so you can continue to live at home during the process. Try that during the grind of a basement extension.

Provided it is quick and relatively hassle-free, a loft conversion is a good investment, too. Spending up to £50,000 on a standard job is, according to Cuthill, “a bargain”, considering the extra space you get and London property prices.

It could add up to to 20 per cent to the value of your home.

The space is the thing, of course. Two-bedroom Victorian terraces can suddenly become four-bedroom family homes.

Seven years ago, Louise Harris converted the loft in her Battersea home. It was an off-the-shelf design and, while she has no complaints, she now sees that it could have been done so much better.

Last year she moved into a near-identical house in the next street. This time, however, she was determined to do something a bit special. So she turned to Howard, and the result could not have been more different.

Instead of standard Velux windows, the design called for a folding glass panel that opens up an entire side of the house to the heavens.

It produced the kind of space and light that makes one want to lie and stare up at the blue skies. So Harris installed a roll-top bath underneath.

“With my friends, I am now evangelical about having lofts done really well,” says Harris. This time I feel like every inch of the space has been maximised.”

She even had soundproofing added to keep out aircraft noise.

But changes can also be made to keep noise in, rather than out. A loft that Howard created recently in Clapham was transformed into a recording studio. A drawer in a corner turns out to be a pull-out single bed “for whichever musician fails to leave after the session”.

All over the capital, imaginative use of glazing is transforming lofts into the lightest, largest room in the house. No wonder spaces that used to be children’s enclaves are now being reclaimed by parents as master bedrooms.

Of course, any plans for steel supports allowing big windows must be passed by planners. Even if the Government presses ahead with controversial plans to relax planning rules, the change will not apply to many parts of London, protected as they are in conservation areas.

But build something you are not allowed, and you will be asked to take it down.

A good guide is to look at your neighbours’ homes. Unless your house is listed, it is likely that you will be able to elevate both at the front and back of the house, or just at the back. That will create an area of flat roof, but these are not the worry they used to be, and come with long guarantees should the rain find a way in.

They also provide another canvas for your imagination. Instead of asphalt, some converters add sedum rooftops. These provide a habitat for bees and butterflies, and are loved by planners because they act as a sponge in cloudbursts, preventing sewer overloads and flash floods.

Whether the caravan or coupé type, all loft converters enjoy some common benefits. Among them is the fact that new space must meet modern insulation requirements, often improving energy efficiency. Renovated attic spaces keep things warm in winter and cool in summer: you are effectively putting a hat on top of the house.

With so many benefits to be gained from ultra-modern loft conversions, there is no reason not to raise the roof.

Tips for the top

Decide whether you are caravan or coupé – functional or flash. Opting for the latter will be up to £20,000 more expensive, but could be well worth it. Consult an architect for design and structural advice – see Architecture.com.

Most domestic loft conversions do not usually require planning permission, provided certain strict conditions on the size are met. However, building regulations approval will be needed – check with your local authority.

Planning permission is needed if you are in a conservation area.

To comply with building regulations, the space must be at least 7ft 6in high at its highest point.

You will probably have to move your water tank, and the layout will be dictated by the position of the staircase and plumbing.

Consider using a specialist company to handle everything from planning to ordering the skip, and checking you have enough headroom.

If there are bats in your loft, you might have to think again: they are a protected species.

 

DIY knocks down property value.

Is this sufficient reason to have the professionals carry out your home improvements?

DIY knocks down property value.

Thousands of Britons have carried out home improvements in the hope of boosting the value of their property, but many may actually have reduced it, an insurer has warned.

Greg Wise's heaven and hell

Photo – Getty

Around 27pc of homeowners admit they have undertaken electrical jobs without professional help, while 22pc have attempted plumbing work, and 9pc have tried their hand at structural improvements, such as removing walls.

A further 6pc have even tried to carry out major building work themselves, such as a loft conversion, while 3pc have tackled potentially dangerous gas repairs, according to LV=.

But the group warned that while many homeowners had carried out the improvements in the hope of increasing the value of their property, if the work was done badly, it could actually reduce a home’s sale price by as much as 5pc.

John O’Roarke, managing director of LV= home insurance, said: “With house prices falling or stagnating in some parts of the UK, it’s understandable that many homeowners should try to bump up the value of their properties through DIY home improvements.

“But although nine out of 10 people in our survey recognised that jobs like gas work should only be left to the professionals, nearly 500,000 Brits are still prepared to give it a go.

Even if the work is done well, homeowners are likely to be disappointed with the impact it has on the price of their property.

A fifth of people thought redecorating would add most value to their home, followed by 14pc who though refurbishing the kitchen would, while 12pc thought improving the garden would have the most impact on their asking price and 6pc rated replacing the bathroom.

But seven out of 10 estate agents said redecorating a home would make no difference to the asking price of a property, while 64pc felt the same way about landscaping the garden.

One in five estate agents also thought putting in a new kitchen would have little impact on the value of a home.

Instead estate agents thought structural work, if done well, was most likely to boost a property’s value, with a good loft conversion likely to increase the asking price by around 8pc.

But even then, they warned homeowners were unlikely to recoup all the money they had spent on having it done.

Landlords and agents are ‘failing tenants over gas safety’

A recent article posted in The Guardian (9th May 2013) highlighting an issue that affects many people not just tenants!! Annual gas checks are a MUST for anyone with a gas appliance or boiler to ensure your and family’s safety. If you are a landlord….beware! You are breaking the law!

 

Despite the law requiring a gas safety certificate to be issued annually, Shelter says one in 10 landlords and agents have not carried out a check for more than a year

A blue gas flame

Simple gas safety tests tenants should be aware of include checking that pilot lights and other flames burn blue. Photograph: Bob Elsdale/Getty Images

As many as one in 10 landlords and letting agents could be putting their tenants’ lives at risk by failing to carry out compulsory gas safety checks, according to Shelter.

The housing charity, in conjunction with British Gas, asked more than 4,000 private tenants in England about the last time their landlord or letting agent carried out a check of their boiler for, among other things, a carbon monoxide leak. One in 10 said a check had not been carried out in their home for more than a year.

The law states that a gas safety certificate must be issued annually for each rented property. Gas safety checks can pick up a range of problems including faulty boilers, and are vital in helping to prevent gas leaks, explosions and carbon monoxide poisoning – all of which can kill.

“It’s shocking to think that in thousands of households across the country there are accidents waiting to happen because a simple safety check has not taken place,” said Shelter’s chief executive, Campbell Robb. “For households with children this is an even bigger concern. Renters have a right to know that the property they are living in is safe.”

Shelter cited the case of one tenant, Susan, and her 15-year-old daughter who have been living in their privately rented home for 11 years. Despite continual requests, no gas safety certificate was issued for the property until two years ago. During this time they had three gas leaks and long periods with no central heating or hot water.

“It is really horrible not to feel safe in your own home,” Susan said. “We had several gas leaks before we finally got a gas safety certificate, and now I’m having to fight all over again for the next one.”

The housing charity also found that one in seven (15%) landlords was unaware of their legal responsibility to make sure their properties have an annual gas safety check and certificate. Landlords who fail to meet gas safety regulations in the homes they rent can face fines and even imprisonment.

Research in 2012 from Gas Safe, the organisation that registers gas engineers to work on appliances in the UK, revealed widespread confusion about what the key symptoms are of carbon monoxide poisoning.

More than half of those questioned wrongly thought that a funny taste in the mouth indicated carbon monoxide poisoning, while a third thought a cough and 29% thought a sore throat were symptomatic. In fact the key symptoms are headaches, dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, collapse and loss of consciousness.

Andy Maddocks, a British Gas engineer, said simple gas safety tests that households could carry out include looking for signs of staining, sooting or discolouration on or around gas boilers, fires or water heaters, and checking that pilot lights and other gas flames burn blue.

Fire safety precautions in houses of multiple occupation (HMO) and shared houses.

 

This article is relevant to some of the projects we undertake. The content is courtesy of (and copyright of) HMO Daddy. See link to their excellent website at the end of the article.

I have, for a long time wrestled with the point of the fire safety precautions e.g. fire doors, fire alarms etc., required by the Local Authority Housing Standard Departments (HSD) for Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Apart from blatant risks , namely, leaving cans of petrol in the hall and the insignificant costs such as fitting stand alone battery operated smoke detectors (which the Fire Service are giving them away free of charge or can be purchased for as little as £2.50p each). I would also ban chip pans and smoking; as, if you believe the statistics, over half of fires in HMOs are caused by chip pans and most fire deaths are caused by smokers.

 

My issue is I cannot find any evidence of the effectiveness of the fire precautions imposed by HSDs.
If you apply a rational evidence based approach, where is the evidence that shows that the fire precautions HSDs impose on HMO landlords have any effect? Nowhere can you find statistics to show that more deaths are caused in unprotected HMOs than protected HMOs. I once spoke to an HSD officer who told me he estimated that 90% of HMOs in their area were unknown to him – if they are unknown, how they could estimate this – I don’t know. When I asked him about all the fire deaths and injuries which resulted from these presumably unprotected HMOs, he could not answer. He could not identify one death in an unprotected HMO; though there had been a number of deaths in HMOs in his area which had fire precautions and yet, strangely enough, this was the reason that this authority aggressively enforced fire standards. I am still trying to understand that logic.
We are not talking about small costs involved in fitting the fire precautions required by HSDs; from experience I find it costs between £5k to £10k,  depending on the property and your ability to source reasonably priced tradesmen to bring an average 6 bed HMO up to the standard HSDs require.  This is not an insignificant amount and I believe should have demonstrable benefits before being imposed.

 

Neither am I talking about very large HMOs, such as hotel size properties or HMOs which house high risk occupants since the dynamics are very different with these types of properties; I am talking about house shares or up to 6 room properties let to professionals, working people or those who are capable of working.

 

HSDs will often say it is the law that stipulates that HMOs have fire precautions – but is this true? There are 3 pieces of legislation which I can find governing this area:

 

1. The Licensing and Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation and other Houses (Miscellaneous Provisions) (England) SI 2006 no 373 schedule 3 Paragraph (5) states that a licensed HMO (generally, this is a property which has 3 or more storeys let to 5 or more occupants who share facilities such as a bathroom or kitchen) must have:
‘Appropriate fire protection facilities and equipment must be provided of such type, number and location as it is considered necessary’

 

2. The Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) which requires an evidence based assessment to be made of the risk to occupants including the risk from fire and action taken to reduce this risk.

 

3. The Regulatory Reform Order 2005 which requires a fire risk assessment to be made of the common parts of HMOs and presumably the risk identified acted upon.

 

All this legislation is very vague and nowhere does it state you must have fire doors on all rooms and a Level 1 Grade A fire alarm (fire alarm with control panel) these being the most expensive items which are generally required in HMO properties. I have not included emergency lighting as it is relatively cheap to install, though I think it is pointless as the odds of a fire and a power failure are remote and the tenants who live in the property will be familiar with the layout of their home so do not need emergency lighting to find the exit should there be a power failure.

 

It gets even better (or worse) let’s examine what these expensive pieces of kit do. A fire door will, if properly fitted and closed, stop a fire breaking through the door for 30 minutes and prevent smoke spreading through the door jams. Very good, but an ordinary solid door will stop a fire for a good 20 minutes and prevent most of the smoke from spreading – providing it is shut. Many fire officers have told me that with an average house fire you are either dead or out of the property within 10 minutes!

 

I am told the statistics show that most fire deaths in HMOs are the result of tenants, usually drunk, falling asleep while smoking. The fire door does not protect them, it may protect the other occupants from the spread of fire but for the occupant it is nothing more than a lid to their coffin. An ordinary door can pretty well do the same job and has the possible added benefit of allowing smoke to leak around it which along with the smoke detectors activating; warn the other tenants of the fire and possibly saving the poor tenant in the room from suffocation.

 

The effectiveness of a fire door in preventing the spread of fire and damage to the rest of the property is remarkable, as I have seen, a room can be totally destroyed by fire yet on the other side of the fire door there is no damage at all. However, an ordinary door does a reasonable job as well, if closed. Fire doors also offer much better sound insulation and are more robust. Most HMO landlords I know including myself say, ‘If you fit a door fit a fire door’. A fire door only costs about £20 but the cost alone is not an argument for making us fit fire doors.

 

The problem with retro fitting fire doors is the cost of fitting them, they need special door frames or existing frames need adapting; the amount of work involved in fitting them in an old house along with the door furniture can run to hundreds of pounds.  The major disadvantage of fire doors, apart from their cost, is that they are inconvenient for the tenants. They are heavy and, if door closures are fitted, can be noisy when they close.  Fire doors covering communal areas such as lounges and kitchens are usually propped open. The overhead door closures are often removed by the tenants. Such is the problem with door closures that a recent review of Building Standards suggested that door closures should no longer be required as they are so misused making them practically useless – this was not implemented.

 

All in all, I do not believe that fire doors do much to stop fire deaths which is their main purpose. It could be argued that they actually contribute to fire deaths in preventing the early detection of the source of the fire but I have no evidence to support this.
The next piece of expensive kit required is a fire alarm system. For some HMOs, depending on the whim of your Housing Standards Department, it needs to be a Level 1 Grade A system which has a fire panel by the front door, requires a professional installer to install and has to have a bi-annual service by a qualified engineer – the cost of which is not insignificant. It has no more benefits, in the event of a fire, than a much cheaper system costing one tenth of the price; it makes a noise when it detects a fire but is no better at detecting a fire than the cheaper versions!

 

So what is the benefit of having the expensive fire detection system? As I said at the beginning I would not argue against having some fire detection system, such as self contained battery operated smoke detectors (even better if they are wired into the mains  – as the batteries get removed), as it clearly does provide an early warning of fire and costs very little so the risk versus reward benefit is insignificant. If it costs nothing or very little and may have some benefit why argue against doing it or am I contradicting myself?

 

Again, like fire doors, fire alarms are not appreciated by tenants, often abused, deactivated and damaged. It is not uncommon to find the smoke detectors have been covered by a plastic bag, or a sock etc.

 

What is really needed, if fire protection for HMOs is required, is a fire protection system which is not prone to being abused by the tenants, and ideally from the landlord’s point of view costs less than the current fire protection advocated by HSDs and does a better job. It is not as if such a system does not exist, it does – it is called ‘Fire Sprinklers’ and if some over the top standards for fire sprinklers were relaxed they would, in most cases, surprisingly, cost less to install.
Fire sprinklers will not only detect a fire but will contain the spread of fire thereby reducing the damage caused by fire by up to 80%. But more crucially there has never been a death through fire in a property with a fully fitted sprinkler system, which is more than you can say about the current system, called passive fire protection, which is imposed on HMO landlords. Even with the expensive fire precautions required by HSDs, tenants will continue to die in HMO fires. There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding fire sprinklers which has been addressed in my article ‘How Landlords Can Save Lives and Money’ available free of charge on my website

 

The relevant authorities prefer the superior system, in high risk situations where they insist on the use of fire sprinklers but only as a bolt-on to the existing passive fire protection system, not instead of. Why? It is difficult to understand their standpoint if fire sprinklers do a better job and are cheaper. It seems that an irrational institutional thought pattern is in place which nobody seems to be able to break.

 

The industry standard of providing passive fire protection in HMOs results in nobody fitting fire sprinklers as they are not required by law; apart from me – I fit them whenever I refurbish a HMO, because as I said at the beginning of this article, there is little evidence, on a risk basis, to support the need for very much fire protection in HMOs.

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