Fire safety regulations can cause anguish for many homeowners, particularly those building three-storey homes, but it is vital to get them right, before the building inspector comes calling.

When building a new detached home, there are a few occasions when you will be aware of the Building Regulations. Things are very much tighter for people building attached houses or flats, but for the sake of simplicity we discuss detached homes homes here.

Fire Safety and the Building Regulations

Fire safety in any new home is not achieved by one single measure. Instead, it is compiled from a collection of several different precautions — outlined in Part B of Building Regulations (in England and Wales). Together, these precautions aim to protect life by:

The Building Regulations on fire safety in England and Wales are divided into two volumes. The first volume deals exclusively with homes (excluding flats). They are much the same in all parts of the UK, but here we focus on the rules in England and Wales

In Scotland, the requirements are covered by the Domestic Technical Handbook (Section 2 – Fire).

Where to Place Smoke Alarms

For new homes and extensions, at least one mains-powered smoke alarm system with detector/alarms interlinked should be fitted on each floor. (Mains-operated smoke alarms should be fitted with batteries as a back-up.) They should be positioned within 7.5m of bedroom doors and located in landings and hallways. Smoke detectors should also be positioned at least 300mm away from pendant lights and from the interface between the ceilings and walls.

Open plan areas which feature kitchens create an added risk. As such, they require the addition of a heat detector/alarm interlinked to the smoke alarm system. Again, these should be positioned at least 300mm away from pendant lights and from the interface between the ceilings and walls.

smoke-alarm

Creating a Means of Escape

If the first floor of your home is no higher than 4.5m above the exterior ground level, then you will need to be able to escape the house from the first floor via egress windows to all habitable rooms (i.e. to bedrooms but not bathrooms). Smoke alarms and an egress window are all that are required for fire safety for any habitable room up to 4.5m above ground.

Egress windows should be:

  • no higher than 1.1m from the finished floor level
  • …and at least 450mm x 450mm and a third of m2 in area
  • They should be positioned so as to allow rescue by ladder. As such, they can’t be located above features like polycarbonate conservatory roofs
  • The windows should be positioned to allow the occupants to move away from the building and not, for example, into a small enclosed courtyard beneath.

You may also need ground floor egress windows to serve ‘inner’ rooms. Inner rooms occur when you have to pass through another (access) room to reach the hall, stairway or external door. Therefore, a fire in the access room means escape is necessary through an egress window or an alternative door route.

Be wary of inadvertently creating inner rooms when extending or when creating open plan layouts on the ground floor by removing walls to hallways. This could mean having to replace windows, but it is usually possible to change standard scissor hinges for egress hinges on existing windows that do not open wide enough.

The notable exceptions are kitchens, utility rooms, bathrooms and dressing rooms which as inner rooms do not require egress windows.

Fire Safety in Three or Four-Storey Homes

For homes of three or more storeys where floors occur 4.5m or more above the outside ground level, egress windows are not an option for fire safety.

In new build three or four storey homes (with a top floor which does not 7.5m above ground level), a protected stairway must be created that is continuous to an external door at ground level. The stairway enclosure throughout should be constructed to be fire resistant for at least 30 minutes, with FD20-rated fire doors (which are resistant for at least 20 minutes) to all habitable rooms along it. Self-closers on these fire doors are no longer a requirement.

Homes with top floors above 7.5m require a second escape staircase or some added protection to compensate, such as a sprinkler system.

Loft Conversions and Fire Safety

Loft conversions to two-storey houses invoke the same fire-protected route requirements, but they have some concessions. They still need a protected route through the stairway without passing through any rooms. (The latter means that staircases that land in open plan ground floor areas are not acceptable — unless alternative measures, such as the introduction of a sprinkler system, are taken.)

If you’re existing staircase climbs from the middle of the house, it should be either:

  • Enclosed to an external door within a corridor built to provide 30-minutes’ fire resistance
  • Or, within a lobby of the same standard with two fire doors that create a choice of protected escape routes via front or back rooms
  • Alternatively, it might be possible to separate the first floor by a fire door and use an egress window from this level.

Loft converters are often surprised that they are also required to upgrade the fireproofing on ceilings below the new rooms, too.

Read more about loft conversions and building regulations

Do I Need a Sprinkler System?

In Wales, fitting sprinkler systems to new homes became mandatory in 2016.

In England, regulations make no requirements to use sprinklers. However, they are sometimes accepted as an alternative method of compliance by building inspectors where it is difficult to provide adequate means of escape — for example, when compensating for open plan ground floor layouts.

Preventing the Spread of Fire to or from Neighbouring Homes

Another area that can cause problems when it comes to fire safety is using combustible materials, such as plastic or timber cladding, close to a boundary, even when it is covering masonry walls. In addition to cladding, if the walls themselves consist of non-fire resistant elements (such as windows) they must be at least 6m from the boundary to avoid size restrictions.

However, this is not to say that some combustible materials can’t be used closer to boundaries. For most homes, up to 24m length and no more than three-storeys high, the Building Regs’ provide a simple diagram which aids in this situation (below).

fire-safety-diagram

A certain area of non-fire resistant construction (e.g. windows) can be introduced, depending on the proximity of the building from the boundary — these are known as unprotected areas (UPA).

Walls that are up to 1m from a boundary are restricted to 1m2 of UPA. This extrapolates out with greater distance from the boundary to over 6m, at which point there is no limit to the allowable UPA.

Where the site boundary is a road, river, railway line or canal — the centre line can be taken of that feature as the relevant notional boundary.

Again, in England, installing sprinklers throughout the home will allow you to halve the distance to the boundary (or double the UPA), so long as you are over 1m to the boundary.

Preventing the Spread of Fire Internally

For all structural elements, such as floors, walls and beams, fire resistance of at least 30 minutes is required. This is usually achieved by using fire-rated plasterboard and plaster finishes at least 12.5mm thick, or two layers of standard plasterboard at least 9.5mm thick and a plaster set finish.

If you prefer to expose steel beams rather than clad them, intumescent paints are available. Usually they comprise a two-layer system with an intumescent first coat and a flame spread resistant top coat.

For the internal wall and ceilings finishes, materials need to be Class 1-rated to prevent fire spread. Thus, finishes such as plywood or interior timber cladding will need to be protected. Paint-on coatings are available that will protect timber to Class 1.

Small rooms of up to 4m2 floor area and domestic garages up to 40m2 can be lined with Class 3 (D-s3 d2) materials.

Integral Garages and Fire Safety

Internal doors to integral garages should be FD30 fire doors, and include smoke seals and self-closing devices. (These are the only doors inside a dwelling that require self-closing doors.)

Garage floors should also be sloping outwards or at least 100mm lower at these doors to prevent fuel spillage leaking in to the home.

Creating Access for Fire Engines

When a fire occurs and the alarm is raised, we expect the fire service to respond and arrive quickly. The emergency services need three main conditions to be satisfied to successfully deal with a fire in a house:

  • Fire engines must be able to get close to the building
  • Firefighters and their equipment must be able to reach the fire’s location in the building
  • An adequate supply of water, maintained at sufficient pressure, must be available to fight the fire.

As houses are usually classed as small buildings (that is, up to 2,000m2 floor area with a top storey less than 11m high), only access to within 45m of every point of the building, or to 15% of its perimeter, is needed.

A wide range of fire engines are in use throughout the UK. They vary in height, length and weight and, as such, require varying degrees of access. To ensure that these requirements are met, building control bodies and local fire safety authorities should be consulted early on when designing a new home to check that there are no restrictions to access.

Access to Rural Homes

Long, narrow access tracks or drives in rural areas can often be a problem. Access roads usually need:

  • To be at least 3.7m wide
  • Surfaced and capable of carrying 12.5 tonnes
  • With gates at least 3.1m wide
  • With passing areas or turning points every 20m. A hammerhead or a turning circular With 16.8m turning circle diameter is required if the drive or track is over 20m in length.

If this is not possible, some alternative considerations may be agreed to compensate.

Remote self bu­­­ild projects could include their own fire hydrant. Extended from the water mains, they would provide a means by which fire fighters could connect hoses to a standpipe. Private hydrants should be positioned not more than 90m (hose length) from the external door.

External hydrants are usually ‘wet’ (permanently filled with water) rather than ‘dry’ (kept empty and filled by the fire brigade when they attend an incident).

A more common solution is to fit a domestic sprinkler system.

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Comments
  • Anonymous

    i an having a conservatory and new kitchen can i make an opening from kitchen to conservatory ,it will be a window space only knocked through to make large kit/cons.(not a complete wall) is this ok to do this.I will use a building firm only to do this.

  • ggaylmer

    The above info on bedroom window size by Mark Brinkley, although correct, might mislead some people. If the window were 450mm wide and 450mm high it would not conform, being only about 0.20m2. If 450mm were one dimension then the other dimension would need to be about 750mm to give 0.33m2.

  • Veejay Gillman

    I am trying to re fit an old kitchen & would like to place a freestanding combined dishwasher oven & hob in a space which extends a short way into the area in front of the window. I have been told this is illegal, but as the hob would be electric, so no chances of a flame being blown about, I am wondering if thi is true?

  • Mrs Thomson-Smith

    We are having our dining room annd kitchen knocked through and the kitchen re-fitted.
    The existing kitchen door which opens onto the hallway will be blocked off.The access to the new larger kitchen will be via the old dining room entrance which opens onto the hallway.
    There will be exits from the kitchen via the utility room and also via a family room extension.
    My question is, is it OK to have an opening with no door across it from the hallway into the new kitchen?
    Hope that makes sense!

  • Michael Lloyd

    Dear Mrs Thomson-Smith,

    It sounds as though you may well have issues with building control here due to the open plan aspect of your design intentions. We are the only domestic fire sprinkler company with an RICS surveyor on our team and, as such, are able to provide you with a risk assessment. It is obviously impartial as our RICS credentials depend on this.

    Please do get in touch and hopefully, if you discuss your plans with Henry Lloyd (MRICS, MBEng, MIAS) he will be able to advise you over the phone. 08458033228.

    Good luck

  • Neil Carley

    I will be building a 2.5 domestic building in scotland soon, just at build control stage now, part of the house will be over 4.5m i,m told best way over this is domestic spinkler system will you be able to advise.

  • cabinet handles and knobs

    As I said in the other two articles, thank you so much for this great advice, its been a tremendous help to me 🙂

  • King Kong

    Hi, looking for advice, I live in a 3 bedroom end terrace , back and front door. To give my kitchen a better layout I was wanting to brick up my back door with a stud partition on the inside, I have a large window behind the sink 1.8×900. Was wondering if fire or building regs come into it. ??? Any advice would be greatly appreciated

  • Susan Burt

    At a very early stage of looking at houses to buy. Came across a lovely bungalow which is described as 3 bed and has 3 on ground floor. Owner has put in a staircase off the kitchen to 3 loft rooms which would make an ideal 4th bedroom and bedsit for an adult daughter. However, I am concerned that this may have been done without building regs and may be unsafe in the event of a fire.Can anyone advise before we go to the expense of survey and consider whether the low price of the house would allow for any alterations necessary to make it safe and also more practical. Can it be safe to have the stairs access to loft bedroom off the kitchen? If so, how?Thank you.

  • Lindsey Davis

    Hi Susan,

    I would recommend contacting a building control officer to double check whether this is within building regs, but there are a few options to ensure the room is safe to use.

    – An egress window to allow escape from the loft is essential (technically as it is a bungalow the loft is counted as first floor and it is deemed safe to use first floor windows for escape).
    – Fireproof the floor in the loft bedroom to allow half an hour fire resistance.
    – Install a sprinkler system to prevent the spread of fire from the kitchen (there are companies that do misting sprinkler systems now, rather than standard sprinklers which can drench everything. Search for Automist).
    – A smoke curtain between the kitchen and landing would also be good to prevent smoke hindering escape upstairs.

    Basically, you need to be looking at ways to prevent/slow the spread of fire and ensure there are easy escape routes.

    Best,
    Lindsey

  • Hugo Biltmore

    Hello

    I’m looking to replace an existing stud partition separating a living room from an entrance hallway with a Crittall style, glass wall and door. The house has 3 stories, the living room is at the front of the house and borders the staircase via a masonry wall. Other than the front door, there is an escape route via the back door that does not require going past the living room when escaping via the stairs.

    I’ve been told that the glass wall may need to be fire retardant. Can anyone advise if this is correct?

    Many thanks,
    Hugo

  • […] that whatever windows you have are able to be opened out completely, as this is part of the fire safety regulations that you will have to conform […]

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