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Building Safety Sector Spotlight Part One: Industry Evolution, Regulations and New Systems

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Industry experts across the spectrum of the building safety sector offer some valuable insights into an industry that is harnessing cost-effective building compliance solutions in the Internet of Things era.

Building Safety Sector Spotlight Part 1

As the concept of building safety becomes more complex, building technologies are becoming increasingly integrated as the benefits of improved safety, reduced costs and a lower environmental impact are better understood.

The era of smart buildings has arrived as digital innovation transforms the spaces we live and work in through an ever-expanding suite of technologies. As the sector grows, so too does the number of players operating within it.

A leading expert in the field of emergency lighting safety systems with over 25 years’ experience in consultancy and design in both Irish and international markets, David Vaughan regularly delivers briefings on industry developments as Managing Director at Light Solutions.

“Emergency lighting is legislatively driven. As well as having emergency lighting installed at every public premises, building owners also have to ensure the building is compliant with the laws and certified and maintained to industry standards”

David Vaughn, Light Solutions Managing Director

Having cut his cloth in the construction industry in the early 1990s as a design engineer, Vaughan set up Light Solutions in 2005 and today the company supplies bespoke emergency lighting products across the construction sector.

“What we do is quite specialised,” says Vaughan. “Emergency lighting is legislatively driven. As well as having emergency lighting installed at every public premises, building owners also have to ensure the building is compliant with the laws and certified and maintained to industry standards.”

When asked how the sector has evolved since he first entered it, Vaughan admits the landscape has changed significantly. “In the early noughties we pretty much focused on converting lighting products into emergency lighting,” he says. “So any commercial lighting that was in a premise would have a mains light and an emergency light, and we’d modify those products. So big lighting brands would have a number of lights going into a public premises and we would convert about 30% of them into emergency lights.

“So that was quite a lucrative business, but then the industry became a little bit of a victim to LED technology in the late noughties, which was driven by the large manufacturers. This effectively meant that products didn’t need to be reengineered. There was no need for the labour or the control aspect of our business, so there was a change in how the product was designed for the market.”

Involved with the lighting industry since 2010, Cian O’Flaherty has valuable experience in B2B customer sales, product development and project management.

As CEO of Safecility, he’s responsible for managing the growth of IoT compliance products that simplify the automation of emergency lighting and other legally required testing for clients.

“In 2018 I was looking for a new challenge,” explains O’Flaherty on the formation of the company. “As I was familiar with discussions around smart buildings and the technology around the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation, I thought, ‘What if there was a wireless retrofit product for emergency lighting automation that let building owners see their compliance and safety in real-time?”

The result of this musing became Safecility: a firm that focuses on removing the pain of compliance testing through automatic testing and reporting. The Safecility product connects to any DALI – a digital addressable lighting interface – emergency luminaire and is the first of its type on the market to do that.

“The big players have proprietary technology – a walled garden of applications and markets – and they want to be able to lock people into having to buy their product in perpetuity. I fundamentally don’t think that buyers want that market in the future.”

Cian O Flaherty, Safecility CEO

O’Flaherty’s role is essentially to bring products to market. “I was lucky to have had previous domain expertise,” he says, “so I could see how customers operated. I had enough contacts in the industry and could see how the product was made and delivered.”

As well as supporting the Safecility team who have spent over two years bringing the vision to market, communicating the concept of the software is also a key component for the CEO. “My job is really communicating with people we think we can help and showing them what’s possible, as this is very much a new space. I try to secure the funding, the clients and the marketing that will make this a sustainable business.”

Despite enjoying success within the emergency lighting realm, O’Flaherty believes there are problems within the industry that need to be tackled. “In the lighting space, the industry is moving too slowly,” he says. “The big players have proprietary technology – a walled garden of applications and markets – and they want to be able to lock people into having to buy their product in perpetuity. I fundamentally don’t think that buyers want that market in the future.”

He continues: “Smart technologies and lighting have been hampered by what increasingly looks like a ‘land grab’ from large firms to try and corral customers onto their platform and keep them there. Customers are quite wary of that and they’re much more savvy in today’s marketplace. They want to be able to opt in and out of services. People expect that level of integration from their buildings and their hardware. So I’m not certain that the market has fully woken up to the demand that customers have for open and interoperable products.”

“It’s an extremely difficult area, incompetent design and installation, commissioning and servicing – in a nutshell, we have major problems in the industry.”

Paul Condron, PCCE Consulting

Chartered engineer and registered consulting engineer Paul Condron made the transition to emergency lighting and fire safety in 2004. Since then, his company, PCCE Training and Consulting, has been working across specialist areas of consultancy, such as emergency lighting, electrical building services and fire alarm systems.

Like O’Flaherty, Condron also has some bugbears within the fire safety sector. “It’s an extremely difficult area,” he admits. “Incompetent design and installation, commissioning and servicing – in a nutshell, we have major problems in the industry. I’m the only one doing fire alarm courses online in Ireland, and that’s a pity in a way, because there should be more training available. The other problem is that there’s a real lack of knowledge from a lot of parties of what’s required in terms of fire safety.”

As Senior Architect in Economic Development at Limerick City and County Council, Rosie Webb leads programmes to stimulate and consolidate the historic centres of Limerick. Prior to her role as a public service architect, Webb worked in private practice in London, Chicago and Dublin on projects ranging in scale from housing and civic offices, to museums and stadia.

“I think everyone is aware that the change of pace is very rapid these days,” she comments of how the industry has evolved. “Limerick City and County Council are doing what I would call public interest development, where we’re going out and proactively activating land and developing it. That kind of structure has created an environment for innovative construction in Limerick, which I think is certainly unusual in Ireland.”

Webb’s research focuses on community co-design processes to create more liveable public environments. “What we look at is trying to develop new products and services in terms of the future transitions we need to make in regard to digital working and climate change,” says Webb. “The spatial and economical strategy we focus on is how to improve the city centre in terms of dereliction and vacancy. These are problems that a lot of cities have where old buildings are not easy to adjust to modern living.”

She adds: “Our first project is focused on our Georgian neighbourhood of the city centre. It is one of our key transformational projects to be completed by 2030. We’re focusing on that as our first pilot area as a way of setting up an innovation ecosystem to allow us as government to work more closely with academia and also our industry partners for the benefit of our citizens and local communities.”

Compliance is Key

Compliance is key

Building owners or managers need to make sure safety systems are up to scratch to guarantee they have covered both the organisation and all inhabitants in the event of an emergency.

A number of codes and standards are in place to maintain the necessary standards of relevant safety, health, amenity and sustainability within the industry in relation to all building services.

However, according to Safecility’s Cian O’Flaherty, many of the current regulations are not fit-for-purpose. “They’re written for a perfect world with an infinite amount of resources and time,” he says. “So nobody is perfectly compliant, and that’s a problem because if everyone is affirming that they are compliant, if the worst was to happen, you have an insurance issue. So there has to be some way to allow customers to achieve a perfect compliance record without adding a huge workload.

“We’ve created a system that can conduct daily and weekly checks, as well as your quarterly and annual testing. All of that is logged and it’s logged forever. That’s a perfectly compliant system in perpetuity, as long as you repair what is defective. We think that process is scalable and retainable in other critical fire and water safety areas within estate management.”

“Regulations are written for a perfect world with an infinite amount of resources and time….so nobody is perfectly compliant”

Cian O Flaherty, Safecility CEO

Rosie Webb believes that achieving compliance under current regulations can be difficult, particularly with older buildings. “There are a lot of regulatory aspects that you have to set aside for older builds. It isn’t standardised, so there’s no one solution. When you’re dealing with an old building, it’s almost like you’re on your own and reinventing the wheel the whole time. That exercise and the uncertainty around it, and the fact that you have to go and get that approved, is a difficulty.”

David Vaughan believes the issue doesn’t necessarily sit with the regulations. “A lot of the standards are not weak,” he says, “it’s more to do with how these standards are policed and enforced. There are a lot of complex systems that go into a public premise and there are a lot of stringent standards that need to be adhered to, particularly with older buildings. The onus is on the occupier of existing buildings, as well as new buildings, to comply with standards.”

O’Flaherty also highlights ignorance around compliance as a common issue. “Most of the market is dominated by subcontracting and outsourcing, so testing is rarely undertaken by those who own or manage the building. One of two things needs to happen: the regulations need to be loosened, or the risk of not being compliant forces people to adopt the technology required.

“The regulations aren’t necessarily fast-moving, but once they change it can be very difficult to encourage people to upskill and to learn what the new changes are. It’s also a cost-benefit issue: human beings are very poor at perceiving risk and, as a result, we tend to just do a ‘good enough’ job. Increasingly, this approach looks like it’s not going to be acceptable, but technology will have a big role to play there. The regulations are probably going to become more onerous and ignorance will probably no longer be a justification.”

David Vaughan adds: “A lot of business owners just don’t know what their obligations are. “So we try to push that and explain easily in layman’s terms what is required. If something is complex and if people don’t understand it, they’ll often steer clear of it. So we would encourage a lot of CPD [continuous professional development] trainers that are Engineering Ireland-approved to explain and show lighting suppliers or clients what is required to be compliant – and, more importantly, why this is important.”

Webb points to what she sees as a high level of conservatism from regulators as being detrimental to the housing sector. “My sector set out what we call a pre-procurement process,” she explains. “From our point of view, we have a persistent problem where the market isn’t delivering good solutions around upgrading historic buildings. One of the key problems is upgrading for fire safety. When you upgrade those buildings they basically fall under ‘a new build’ and then the upgrade becomes extremely difficult.”

“A lot of business owners just don’t know what their obligations are.”

David Vaughn, Light Solutions Managing Director

With no viable solution on the table, Limerick City and County Council teamed up with Enterprise Ireland, Innovate Limerick and Dublin City Council to search for a company to develop, trial and monitor innovative solutions within Limerick’s Georgian district.

Webb explains how Safecility came out on top in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) challenge. “The company was already servicing buildings in terms of mechanical systems and Cian and his team were able to take this grant to work with us to figure out a system to ramp-up a self-certification system into something that can actually check the behaviour of people who use the buildings.

“The great thing about working with Safecility is that we gain a better understanding of the people that require the regulations and we can tailor solutions around that.” Whether dealing with a publicly owned or a privately owned operator can also affect the nature of some issues.

“Public organisations tend to be more compliant-conscious,” states Vaughan. “Commercially, you just don’t know what you’re going to get because those organisations are trying to drive costs down to remain competitive. We’re very much a niche organisation that focuses on quality, maintenance and backup – that’s what we’re known for within the industry. Therefore, we tend to steer away from the low-cost projects because you’re competing with a lot of other players and products.”

“I find that better attempts to implement things properly are made in the public sector,” adds Condron. “If you look at a big pharmaceutical company, for example, they will have a lot of corporate resources in the system in terms of being compliant. But, then on the flipside, you’ll find large companies that see us as the lowest common denominator. If I turn around to a client and say, ‘You can spend your budget on an additional fire detector or emergency light, or alternatively invest in more CCTV cameras,’ they’re going to go with the CCTV option because they don’t have the confidence in the other systems.

“This proves to me that there’s a huge problem around knowledge. The result being that substandard labour is being employed because an emergency lighting system is seen as a necessary evil and building owners don’t understand the obligations they’re under.” Vaughan would like to see an improvement in how compliance and policing is monitored within the industry. “We can see that there are improvements going on in the market,” he explains. “The larger multinationals will always be a bit more stringent with the standards, compared to the smaller businesses, but, again, that comes down to an awareness of responsibilities and an ability to give power to companies like ours.”

Vaughan also highlights an unwillingness to invest on emergency lighting as a commonplace problem.

“Lighting systems can last a long time,” he comments, “and we find that many organisations find it hard to get budgets to change lighting to the latest technologies, as this can be a huge capital investment. It is definitely easier to upgrade your lighting system these days, but there is a lot of inertia around it because people’s focus on their own business tends to be, ‘If it’s not broken, then why fix it?’ Therefore, we find that we repair a lot of old products.”

Post-Grenfell Landscape

Post Grenfell 1

With the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 still fresh in the memory, implementing effective safety measures should be a primary concern for all building owners and managers.

A 2018 independent review of building regulations and fire safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt has set out more than 50 recommendations to deliver a more robust regulatory system. As a result, a building safety regulator will become the dominant regulatory paradigm of this era.

O’Flaherty envisions a decade of change ahead. “In ten years’ time we’ll look back at Grenfell as a watershed moment. Prior to this, there was a huge amount of autonomy and we saw points where that failed. Human beings are very poor at perceiving risk and self-certification is a difficult model when you’re faced with actors who don’t fully live up to expectations. Ignorance will no longer be a justification for neglect.

“The Hackitt Report has identified concepts such as the ‘golden thread’, which is a permanent digital record that acts as a unified database that tracks how buildings are constructed and managed. That’s an incredibly powerful concept.”

The Hackitt Report also suggests nominating named individuals as accountable parties. “I think the regulations are going to become far more comprehensible in making people accountable for work, upkeep and safety,” says O’Flaherty. “That is going to be impossible without technology, because you’re not going to have enough staff and manpower to take on this upcoming burden of work.”

Ireland has of course been victim of its own fire tragedy: the 1981 Stardust incident in north Dublin. The event resulted in the Fire Services Act, 1981, which Paul Condron refers to as a “brilliant piece of legislation”. The Act is still in operation today for fire safety legislation.

“We have different systems and different methodology here, compared to the UK,” says Condron. “In Ireland, we don’t have a fire rescue service; we have a fire service that does rescue, but it’s not its primary function. In the UK, they have a fire rescue service where they say to people, ‘Stay in the building and we’ll rescue you.’ There’s a whole different mind-set here.”

He adds: “Another thing you have to remember is that fire alarm and lighting services are completely different. Fire alarms are more important in terms of life safety, as they alert individuals to danger, whereas emergency lighting is there in instances of what may or may not be an emergency. A lot of what happens here in terms of fire is due to poor installation and poor maintenance.”

“Every time you get on an aeroplane, you get a speech about how to get out of it in the event of a fire. Whereas in a building, you may be living there for ten years and no one’s ever told you how to get out.”

Rosie webb, Senior Architect Limerick City And County Council

Webb believes that current reviews taking place in the UK and Ireland around fire safety compliance and the way people operate a building – both in terms of how it’s maintained and how people live in it – is a positive step.

For Webb, educating the public about how to respond to an emergency is vital if further disasters are to be avoided. “Every time you get on an aeroplane, you get a speech about how to get out of it in the event of a fire,” she says. “Whereas, in a building, you may be living there for ten years and no one’s ever told you how to get out.”

She concludes: “A system is needed whereby building owners have to ensure tenants are aware of safety procedures. These new safety systems will allow for a coordinated response and shared responsibility. I believe Safecility will fit very well into that model by showing that, as an owner, you are compliant, and that can lead to a safety conscious community.”

Click Here to Read Building Safety Sector Spotlight Part 2: New Working Practices, Emerging Technologies and Future Trends

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