The Children’s Hospital, and Shouting “Fire” In A Crowded Building

A couple of days ago, a story appeared in the national news about the National Children’s Hospital and fire safety. The substance of the story is that the hospital have been granted a Fire Safety Certificate – this is the official document certifying that the design, as submitted to the Local Authority, is fire-safe – but Dublin City Council have attached some conditions to the document. The hospital are appealing three of these conditions to An Bord Pleanála.

That’s the substance. The reporting and responses use words like “derogation,” implying that the hospital are looking to wriggle out of the Regulations in some way. If this were happening, it would be illegal. I’ve since seem lots of people on social media referring to it in exactly that way: TDs and journalists alike are referring to them trying to “skimp” on fire safety.

This is completely inaccurate, and the tone of the reporting is rather misleading. I’m not a fan of many things about the way the Children’s Hospital (now titled Phoenix Health – good lord, give me strength) has been procured. But there’s no evidence at all that they are skimping on anything. And the sad thing is that there could be a real story in this, but when it’s swamped in wild language, it will never be found.

The rest of this is written as a Q&A, which I find a bit ugly, but seems the best way to explain what’s actually happening.

Are the Hospital looking to “derogate” the regulations?

Absolutely not. It’s all but impossible to do this legally.

What has happened is this: they’ve applied for a Fire Safety Certificate for the design. Fire safety is defined by Part B of the Building Regulations, and comes with over 200 pages of technical guidance. A Fire Safety Cert is a mandatory requirement for most buildings larger than a private house, and they’re a way that the local council (in practice it’s a full-time fire officer employed by the fire service) check the design and confirms that it complies with Part B.

That last bit is important. A Fire Cert doesn’t assess whether a building is safe-in-the-opinion-of-a-fire-officer. It assesses whether it complies with Part B of the Building Regulations, which are a national standard. Fire officers can’t throw in their own requirements just because they reckon they are necessary.

In the case the Council have granted the Fire Safety Cert, but they’ve also imposed additional conditions on the Hospital – including, apparently, that the hospital should fit additional sprinklers. The Hospital are appealing the conditions, because they believe they aren’t necessary for the building to comply with the regulations. If they’re right, the appeal will succeed. If they’re wrong, it’ll be turned down. What they emphatically aren’t doing is trying to wriggle out of complying with the Building Regulations in some way, because there is no way of doing that*.

But isn’t a good idea to go over and above the minimum requirements, especially given that it’s a hospital?

The use of the building isn’t really relevant to this discussion. The Regulations assess buildings according to their purpose. Hospitals have completely different requirements than, say, a school, so the regulations include for the special measures that might be needed in such buildings (for example, that some patients may not be able to leave the building). Yes, there are additional requirements for a hospital, but they are already built into the Regulations.

However, the whole idea that a building should go “above and beyond” the regulations, for something as fundamental as fire safety, carries with it a central flaw. If the Fire Safety Regulations don’t already ensure a building that’s extremely safe from fire, something is badly wrong. They are designed to ensure buildings that are exceptionally fire-safe and, if they don’t, it’s a bloody big deal that we all need to know about.

Surely it should be obvious whether it complies or not? Why is an appeal necessary?

Normally, it is obvious; it’s pretty rare for an appeal to happen. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity in large buildings – they tend not to comply with the standard guidance, and instead come up with bespoke, fire-engineered solutions – but even so, there aren’t that many grey areas.

Demonstrating compliance either means sticking rigidly to the official guidance, or providing very detailed and advanced computer simulations and extensive reports. These are created by a specialist fire consultant on the client side, and checked by a Fire Officer who works for the Local Authority. Two specialists working together, both highly trained in what constitutes fire safety, can usually agree without having to go to an appeal. So the big question is why, exactly, it’s happened here.

So are the hospital trying to skimp, or are DCC asking them to do more than they have to?

It’s impossible to know, yet; that’s what the appeal is for. It’s possible that DCC have added conditions that aren’t necessary, and they hence have no legal right to stipulate. It could be someone in the hospital trying their luck, after what can only be a balls-up in the design. It could also be a disagreement about standards (the Regulations refer to British and European Standards that in some cases have been superseded, so maybe someone’s trying to save money by complying with the older standards). It could be one of those rare grey areas which the two sides interpret differently. Until the appeal is complete we won’t know for sure.

Aren’t sprinklers just a good idea? Shouldn’t they be standard practice?

The media narrative appears to be one of a penny-pinching hospital who won’t fork out for sprinklers. This isn’t accurate – it would appear the hospital is fitting sprinklers, but not as many as the council would like. Even if they weren’t, it’s not as clear cut as you might think.

In new buildings, if sprinklers are provided, it usually isn’t to improve fire-safety. It’s either to protect property (the regulations are about keeping people safe, rather than the contents of the building) or because it’s cheaper to build the building with sprinklers than without. Including sprinklers loosens up other parts of the regulations; for example, a building with sprinklers might need fewer escape stairs, which can save a lot of money.

If a building has been designed to be fire-safe without sprinklers, and is then told to include them anyway, it’s a substantial loss. If the hospital think what DCC is asking is not fair, it’s not surprising they asking An Bórd Pleanála to look at it again.

Look, it’s only €2 million, and it’s saving lives.

Thing is, in a hospital, any expenditure is about saving lives. €2 million isn’t a lot of money proportionately but it’s still plenty, and if the regulations don’t require it then they shouldn’t be forced to spend it. I would rather it be spent on hospital equipment – how much is an MRI machine, exactly? – than wasting it on fire safety measures that aren’t needed.

Also, the structure and transparency of the regulations matter, and the regulations themselves matter. Dublin City Council can’t unilaterally impose new regulations. If the hospital believe that’s what they’ve done, they have every right to ask An Bord Pleanála to check their work. It’s not common, but it’s a standard procedure.

So it’s a non-story?

No, there is a story here, but we don’t know what it is yet. Appeals of fire safety certificates should not be necessary – this isn’t a grey area, like planning permission. Something is wrong here.

Option 1 is that the design team for a very expensive building, of national importance, have made such an almighty hames of the design process that they’ve designed a building that doesn’t comply with the regulations, and millions will have to be spent to sort it out. That’s news.

Option 2 is that Dublin City Council have taken it upon themselves to condition buildings to perform better than the current regulations require. If that’s on a whim, it’s pretty irresponsible. If it’s because they have a genuine concern that the Building Regulations are defective, then it’s deeply worrying. And that’s definitely news.

Sadly, the only non-story is the one we’ve been given, or at least has been implied – that the hospital is skimping on fire safety. That would be illegal, a huge scandal; but right now, there’s no reason to believe it’s true.

*In the interest of strict accuracy, it is technically possible to apply for a relaxation of the Building Regulations. This is extremely rare, but can be granted if – say – you want to open a shop in an original Georgian building, and a big ugly disabled access ramp would destroy a historical facade. Anyone trying to get a relaxation of the fire safety regulations, on a new-build project would a: fail and b: lose all professional credibility, as well as being laughed at.

About Mike Morris

A British / Irish architect who practiced in Ireland and Ontario, now working in the U.K.
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