Reconstructing the Facade: An Investigation into the Fire Issues Surrounding Ventilated Rainscreen Cladding
Jack Buckley ACIAT,
Ulster University

Ventilated rainscreen cladding systems have gained popularity in the construction industry since their emergence in 1990, primarily due to their ability to reduce energy consumption, enhance sustainability and increase adaptability. However, as the industry has increasingly focused on energy efficiency, concerns about the fire safety of these systems have emerged. This concern intensified following the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, leading to stricter regulations and greater emphasis on transparency and accountability in the construction industry. This shift has spurred interest in innovative technologies and materials to improve fire safety.

One such technology is Automated Code Compliance (ACC) software, which aims to automate the regulatory checking process for building designs. While attempts at ACC software have been made over the past two decades, the challenge of encoding complex regulatory texts into computable objects has hindered its development. My paper explored the fire safety issues surrounding ventilated rainscreen cladding and evaluates the potential of ACC software to address these challenges. 

The research highlights the multifaceted nature of fire safety challenges in ventilated rainscreen cladding. Interviews and questionnaires conducted as part of this investigation reveal a range of issues. Notably, there is no single, isolated problem; instead, there exists a catalogue of failings, a sentiment consistent with previous research findings. Participants across the board emphasised the difficulties presented by ever-evolving fire regulations, particularly the inherent ambiguity within these regulations. This aligns with observations by Hackitt (2018), who argued that the current regulatory processes for assessing fire safety in high-rise buildings are inadequate.

All participants agreed the Building Safety Act 2022, introduced by the UK Parliament (2022) as a direct response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has supported significant development in resolving issues relating to controlling material choice and substitution by creating a digital trail of information. However, participants added there is still a long way to go in erasing issues surrounding workmanship and improving the regulatory checking processes. The creation of a BIM model with accurate manufacturer product information would allow an ACC software to run fire compliance checks as the design evolves saving time and costs. Reports produced from the compliance checks can be stored on a common data environment (CDE), allowing all stakeholders to work from the same project information, providing the site team access to the latest façade drawings and recording material choices and substitution. This would serve as the golden thread of information as recommended by Hackitt (2018).

Throughout this research there is an agreement that ACC would benefit the industry. However, that ACC software has not yet evolved to check fire safety adequately. All participants stated limitations that were restricting the adoption of ACC software at present. With one participant highlighting that software would need to be created with the ability to continuously update in line with fire safety regulations thus ensuring pan industry adoption. Participants also highlighted issues surrounding liability in the event of a software failure questioning where the responsibility would lie. One participant stated that ACC software could only be used to its highest potential if accurate manufacturer product information is fed into the BIM model. The results of the questionnaire highlighted a divided opinion towards the adoption of ACC software, with participants with 1-5 years’ experience being more interested in learning more about ACC software whereas, participants with 6-10 and 10+ years’ experience stating they are not interested in upskilling with advancements of technology. These findings convey the current state of the industry and provide optimism that ACC software as a solution to the fire issues surrounding ventilated rainscreen cladding will be adopted in the future.

The analysis of Solibri model checker (SMC) identified that ACC software is unable to cover fire safety adequately and does not have the ability to validate the information entered into the BIM model. This emphasises the significance of participant C’s statement who suggested that ACC software is only as effective as the quality of a manufacturer’s data. The analysis found that the software does not allow the customisation of rulesets to local jurisdictions, aligning with the findings of Eastman et al (2009). The analysis revealed that SMC lacks the ability to analyse material authorisation against regulations regarding fire safety, as the rulesets presented within SMC are more appropriate for model checking i.e. clashing objects, this highlights that at present there is no software that meets all of Eastman et al (2009) recommendations of attributes needed for ACC software. All current software needs greater transparency in how it works, to update with changes in legislation, be customisable to local jurisdictions and can authorise fire safety compliance of facade elements i.e.cladding.

I devised an Automated Code Compliance (ACC) workflow tailored to align with the objectives outlined in my paper, encompassing the entirety of the research’s findings. This showcased workflow emphasises the pivotal role of collaboration among industry stakeholders, software developers, and regulatory bodies. It establishes a robust framework for an ACC software solution capable of effectively addressing fire safety challenges, all the while promoting transparency, accountability and compliance with continually evolving regulations.

The proposed workflow, designed as an ACC software plugin for Building Information Modelling (BIM), offers a comprehensive solution. It entails sequential steps, beginning with the precise input of manufacturer product information, followed by the execution of compliance checks, and culminating in the storage of reports within a shared data environment. Additionally, the workflow harnesses local building regulations, leveraging the user’s address to customise its application. This information is securely stored in the cloud and automatically updated with any revisions to building regulations. This automation eliminates the need for manual software updates with each regulation amendment, ensuring seamless integration with facade designers. Ultimately, this collaborative approach facilitates the creation of safe, high-performance facades with enduring efficacy.



Judges' comments

Jack’s report is very well written and engaging. It takes a very serious and topical issue and approaches it in a good, clear and meaningful way. A subject area that is very important for all Architectural Technology professionals. This study impressed the Judges with its sound methodological stance and robust research design. With clear aims and objectives, this work is based on the collection of primary data matched with a clear and complete literature review. The findings obtained indicate that Automated Code Compliance (ACC) software is viewed as the future of fire compliance checking in the industry.

This rich and precise piece of work was thought to be imaginative and finely executed in successfully shedding light on the potential for ACC software in addressing fire safety issues in ventilated rainscreen cladding. 

The research highlights key issues and challenges that currently hinder the adoption of ACC software, including concerns regarding legislation, liability, and the standardisation of BIM model information. It suggests these challenges must be tackled before widespread adoption can occur to ensure the industry is ready to embrace ACC software and fully leverage its potential. The mix of text, drawings, diagrams and images combine to make it a well written and informative report. This work is a brilliant example of excellence in Architectural Technology and an exemplar for the Student Award Report category.