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Clearing up the confusion: changes in fire-safety regulations and the implications for glass in high-rise balconies

When it comes to the specification of materials on the external face of a high-rise building, it’s no surprise that there is potential for confusion around what the regulations say.

With that in mind, Andy Lake, Sales Director UK & IRE at Pyroguard, seeks to explain the revisions that have taken place, with a specific focus on the construction of glazed balconies.

The tragic events of the Grenfell disaster in 2017 brought the materials used on the external face of high-rise buildings under the spotlight. As a result, there have been a number of amendments to the regulations governing the specification of fire-safe materials. These directives have continued to evolve, so it’s no surprise that the regulatory landscape can sometimes create some confusion – especially when specifying the correct safety glass solution for balcony and balustrade applications.

The Building Regulations and Approved Document B

Amendments to Building Regulations Approved Document B for fire safety were issued in 2020 following Grenfell, and again in 2022 – all with a view to improving safety and preventing such tragedies from happening again. Amongst the updates was a ban on the use of combustible materials in and on the external walls of buildings, which included limiting the use of laminated glass on high-rise balconies or terraces over 18 metres tall.

This was due to the PVB interlayer used in some systems acting as a combustible material in the event of a fire – with burning PVB thought to be able to propagate a fire, presenting the danger of spreading it further throughout a building.

Of course, subsequent revisions to Approved Document B have further reduced the height threshold at which combustible materials are restricted to, with the new regulations changing from 18 metres to 11 – a change which has had further implications for the construction industry.

Building Safety Act

In a move to further safeguard the residents of high-rise buildings, the Building Safety Act 2022 officially became law in June 2022. This was closely followed by key reforms to the Act, which took effect from October 2023, modifying how high-rise buildings are built, maintained and made safe. This update was to ensure that residents had complete clarity on fire safety guidance, and included architects amongst the duty holders, who can be held to account as part of the amended building control regime.

While safety enhancements of high-rise dwellings are of the utmost importance, these various regulatory changes have also presented housebuilders, developers and architects with challenges when it comes to meeting the aesthetic requirements of briefs. This is especially true when looking to specify the materials used on exterior balustrades and balconies of high-rise buildings, where glass is often the preferred choice thanks to its contemporary look and feel.

In previous years laminated glass had become a popular (and safer) substitute for single-pane monolithic glass. However, with these new regulations in place, architects and housing developers had to turn their attention to other materials for balcony construction. Alternatives, such as steel railings, comply with the new regulations; however, they do not always suit the visual requirements dictated by the brief. While single-pane monolithic glass, despite meeting the fire regulations, presented some major safety risks in the high-rise market, known to occasionally spontaneously break.

A ‘compliant’ way forward

It is for all of these reasons that a new kind of laminated toughened glass, which uses a chemically engineered and non-flammable gel interlayer, is the safer choice. This new solution is strong enough to accommodate high mechanical stresses, due to the fact that there are multiple panes (or plies) in the system, meaning that even in the event one ply breaks, the glass will still remain rigid and in place.

For example, Pyroguard Balustrades, a patented safety glass for balustrade and balcony applications, which was designed to re-establish glass as an exterior design solution suitable for these applications. Drawing on 35 years’ experience in fire safety glass, Pyroguard was able to utilise the intumescent gel interlayer used in its range of fire safety glass products, to make the Pyroguard Balustrade safety glass solution inherently non-combustible, and therefore, compliant with the changes to Building Regulations Document B.

In fact, Pyroguard Balustrades was recently the product of choice at London’s Deanston Wharf, a vibrant new development located on the curve of the River Thames, featuring winter gardens with a glazed balcony. It was also used on the Quantock House development, a residential development exclusively for the over 55s and one of the first UK projects to feature an NHBC-accepted A2-s1 glass balustrade system installed in its apartment balconies.

With renewed confidence to be able to integrate glass into their high-rise designs, architects and specifiers now have a specification option to meet the high-rise challenge in a safe (and stylish) way.

For more information, please contact us.

Further reading

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