Following a government consultation on proposals to mandate a second staircase in every new residential block of over 30 metre – approximately 10 storeys, and the introduction of this requirement in London earlier this year, Stairways explores what developers need to know.
As part of ongoing reviews of fire safety legislation in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has been exploring proposed measures to make it mandatory to include a second staircase in new residential tower blocks in England over 30 metres as a fire safety measure.
The consultation document set out that 30 meters is “an accepted threshold for increased safety measures such as increased fire resistance provisions”, although feedback on possible alternative height thresholds was invited.
Accordingly, in a coordinated response, architects, fire safety and disability rights organisations came together calling for the height threshold to be lowered to 18 metres (around six storeys).
The coalition, which includes the Royal Institute of British Architects, and other groups including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and Disability Rights UK wrote to the Housing Secretary to call for “bolder action” to make homes as safe as possible and prevent “further avoidable tragedies”. Where the final threshold will fall has yet to be determined.
The 12-week consultation ended in March, and while new legislation has yet to be announced, all indications are that the change will soon be implemented through an amendment to Approved Document B, which relates to building regulations covering fire safety requirements.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has gone on record saying it wants to bring in the measure with a “very short” transition period and was encouraging “all developments to prepare for this change now”.
The proposed change would affect new residential buildings in England, but not existing tower blocks above the threshold height that have only a single staircase.
However, in London things have moved ahead already. In February, Following the publication of the DLUHC consultation, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that second staircases in blocks above 30m would be mandated with immediate effect. All relevant planning applications in London must include this measure before going to the Greater London Authority for their final sign off.
The DLUHC consultation recognised that such a significant change could make some developments “unviable” by increasing costs and reducing saleable floorspace. Some initial estimates are that this measure would cost in the region of £1.6 billion over a decade, and there are fears among social landlords that adding in a stair core will reduce lettable floorspace and hit affordable housing numbers especially.
The move is already challenging the sector. Housebuilder Hill recently shared that it has gone back to the drawing board with four residential schemes, which together would have delivered some 2,500 homes, reporting delays of at least six months per scheme due to the change, resulting in an impact on their viability.
With the second staircase requirement set to become a country-wide change, bringing England in line with many countries around the world, developers will need to find ways to absorb the impact of delays in the short term. In the longer term the onus will be on designers and architects to design blocks including two staircases in such a way that minimises the impact on internal floorspace and building aesthetics. Some developers may simply choose to build blocks that fall below the threshold.
This is doubtless a positive move for the industry, with the potential to improve fire safety and save lives, so it is to be welcomed, but, with double the number of staircases likely to soon be required in taller residential blocks, there will doubtless be a financial impact that developers will need to be ready for.
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