Cladding and building exteriors: How to check yours is safe

In 2017, a fire at Grenfell Tower in West London killed 72 people. The shocking and tragic incident was a result of how quickly the fire tore through the building.

The tragedy exposed a nationwide failure of building regulations, one which many property owners are still struggling to rectify. The figures speak for themselves – around 1.5 million flats in the UK are thought to be clad in flammable materials, with around 750,000 landlords implicated. 

In the wake of Grenfell, the Government tightened fire safety regulations for flats. One of the immediate results of this was that flat sales started falling through. The new legislation effectively created a block – lenders required proof that the properties met the stated safety guidance. So, in December 2019, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors launched the External Wall Fire Review Form (EWS1 form), with the aim of providing buyers with proof that an assessment has been carried out for the external wall construction of residential apartment buildings and unblocking the market. 

An EWS1 inspection involves checking external walls are suitably clad for reducing combustibility and the spread of fire. This assessment needs to be carried out by a qualified professional, such as a Chartered Construction Professional. Once the form has been completed and signed, it’s valid for five years for the entire building.

However, many landlords whose properties fail this assessment are effectively trapped – unable to sell or even remortgage, since most brokers are insisting on ESW1 forms giving the building a clean bill of health before signing off.

And the problems don’t stop there. Credit ratings agency DBRS found that due to the reduced resale value or the increased burden of funding fire safety repairs, borrowers potentially face higher monthly mortgage payments when remortgaging.

Does your flat need an ESW1?

The only way you can find out if your building needs an EWS1 certificate is by carrying out an initial assessment. 

While the certificate was originally designed for buildings above 18 metres in height, the Government changed the criteria to include all residential buildings in 2020. 

Then in November 2020, RICS and the Government agreed that not all buildings required an EWS1 certificate. So, while all buildings of any height could potentially need an EWS1, there are other criteria which could determine whether or not you need an EWS1. 

Apart from the height of the building, the type of cladding should also be considered (including how much of it there is on the building). Balconies and combustible materials are another determining factor. 

The responsibility for organising this assessment lies with the building owner or managing agent.

If you’re selling a flat, you can ask the owner or agent to commission an EWS assessment. In the first instance, you could simply enquire about the make up of the external wall as they might already know this information.

If not, they need to be able to provide you with the information by setting up an assessment.

If the building owner or managing agent cannot provide you with the information you need, and refuses to undertake the assessment, you should contact your local council authority for advice and help.

How long will the process take?

As mentioned above, you need specifically trained engineers to carry out the intrusive checks on external walls.

With only around 291 fire engineers who fit the bill, there’s currently a backlog of buildings requiring an assessment.

There’s also the issue of what happens if your building fails to pass the safety requirements.

In September 2020, the Fire Protection Association conducted a survey which concluded that 89 per cent of buildings that had received an external wall fire assessment, required remediation work. Of course, fixing the structural façade of a large building is no mean feat.

According to the FPA, at the end of 2020, 43 percent of leaseholders had been told the process could take more than two years. 

The net result of this is a bottleneck. Some landlords and homeowners who want to sell or buy are effectively trapped.