EWS process: a good idea badly implemented?

31st July 2020

Our experts take a look at the External Wall System (EWS) process. On one level the Consolidated January 2020 Government guidance is to be welcomed. It gives clarity following a whole series of guidance notes including AN14 and it usefully identifies the Government's position on test data and cladding materials. It noted that building owners should check that external wall systems on their buildings meet an acceptable standard of safety and do not contribute to the external spread of fire. A requirement which is irrespective of the height of the building. Part 3 of the Consolidated Guidance sets out what building owners should do when reviewing the safety of external wall systems

The External Wall Fire Review (EWS1) process was introduced in December 2019 shortly after AN14 but before the Consolidated Guidance (both of which provide guidance in terms of what a Tall Building owner should do in order to satisfy the obligation to take reasonable fire precautions as required by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005). The EWS1 is a relatively short form aimed at enabling tall building owners to provide, in a “consistent manner”, information to funders, lenders or valuers about the external wall construction of their buildings and confirm that the external wall construction (and any attachments) has been assessed by a suitably qualified individual. It is only a part of the regulatory obligation and not a complete answer to the requirements in itself (for instance, it does not cover the range of a Fire Risk Assessment (FRA)).

Assessment is to be undertaken by a suitably qualified individual who will need to identify the primary external wall materials used on the building (including insulation, filler, cladding materials) and also of any attachments (i.e. balconies). Investigation must be made of each wall construction type and include evidence of the fire performance of the materials installed. The notes to the EWS1 form indicate that investigations might take the form of either a physical inspection or inspection of photographic/similar information obtained by a third party. It is suggested that a review of design drawings alone would not be sufficient.

Assessment options

Depending on whether combustible materials are present in the external walls, there are two options for assessment:

  • Option A assessment is where the primary materials used in the external wall (and any attachments) are of limited combustibility (as defined in BS 9991:2015). Assessment must be undertaken by a suitably qualified “member of a relevant professional body within the construction industry”
  • Option B assessment is where combustible materials are present in the external wall. In this instance, assessment must be undertaken by a Chartered Fire Engineer who will need to certify whether or not remedial works are required to be carried out. The Chartered Fire Engineer is required to carry out an assessment of fire risk, taking account of the regulations/guidance current at the time of construction and at the time of assessment.

The EWS process

The EWS process currently applies to residential buildings over 18m or where specific concerns exist. However, it appears that it is likely to be introduced for buildings lower than 18m, although whether with such detailed inspection requirements is unclear at present. What is clear is that funders have adopted the form with some relish as a way of satisfying themselves that it is safe to lend. Therefore, in practise, if a funder wants an External Wall System regardless of height, it will be necessary to obtain that to continue with funding from that source. This gives rise to considerable difficulties where, for instance, those managing a building below 18m have no interest in getting an EWS but an individual in the block does because of a sale or re-mortgage situation. This is a practical problem in the market which needs to be resolved, not least because the EWS covers the whole building not just an individual flat or apartment unit (so it is not particularly fair for the first vendor of a flat in a building below 18m to be saddled with the cost of an EWS, although arguably sharing the cost between all residents is not particularly fair either). As the EWS process is for building owners to undertake rather than individuals, it is also not something that a prospective purchaser could step in and have carried out either.

As noted above, the EWS process covers a whole block/building and is valid for up to five years from the date at which it is signed. A building may however need to be reassessed earlier if any significant changes occur to the external wall construction or any attachments thereto in the intervening five year period.

Whilst a validity period of five years might not sound too demanding, problems have arisen because the way it has been introduced is to require all buildings of 18m or more to have an External Wall System, as well as those further buildings where funders are demanding one. This is causing substantial problems in provision, not least because of the technical standards an assessor is required to have. A staged or managed introduction would have helped considerably and complaints of limited resource/availability and long delays to obtain are now commonplace.

This article has been co-written by James Bessey, Gemma Hill and Simon Lewis.

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