Fire Risk and Attic Conversions | Michael Tweed

Michael Tweed

Michael Tweed B.A. B.Arch RIBA MRIAI

In the course of my work I am dealing with a planning permission from a local authority planning department which has the following condition: “That any attic floorspace which does not comply with Building Regulations in relation to habitable standards shall not be used for human habitation”.

My first reading of this was to assume that it referred to Diagram 3 in TGD F Ventilation where the recommended ceiling height for an attic space is described, and to the definition of “habitable room” in the same TGD as a room in a dwelling used for sleeping purposes but doesn’t include a kitchen having a floor area of less than 6.5sqm. But several problems arise from this condition. Firstly it is impossible to find a definition of “habitable standards” in the Building Regulations. The planning permission is a document with information as much for the house owner as for his/her architect and builder but this is a condition impossible for him/her to understand because he/she will find not be able to find “habitable standards” in the Building Regulations. Secondly the condition, if it could be properly understood is impossible to police.

But most concerning of all it gives rise to a “cheat” which could ultimately cause loss of life.

The Condition as written is an example of the sloppy shorthand that’s common in the building industry. (A long time bugbear of mine is the use of the term “requirements of the Building Regulations” when what is actually referred to are the requirements in the Technical Guidance Documents). In regard to the above planning Condition let’s begin with the simple question, what are “habitable standards”? I’ve read the Building Regulations, or to be precise the Second Schedule to the Building Regulations which are the regulatory requirements for buildings, and nowhere is the term “habitable standards” either defined or used.

Presumably the author of that condition was referring to the definition of “habitable room” as given in Part F TGD and more particularly to Diagram 3 in the same TGD showing “suggested heights of habitable rooms”.

To digress somewhat from my main concern for a moment, Part F is the only TGD to suggest any guidance regarding ceiling heights of habitable rooms. However, the reason for limiting ceiling height to 2.4m provided in TGD F quite frankly doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. To suggest that ceiling height is a factor which affects ventilation shows a complete lack of understanding of ventilation – but then most of TGD F demonstrates that lack of understanding of ventilation from beginning to end.

2.4m as a minimum ceiling height for a habitable room is laudably good design – that’s all. It’s good design because the major percentile of people are shorter than 2.05m high (the clearance height of a standard door head) and therefore when you suspend a light fitting from a 2.4m ceiling it won’t clatter most people on the head. I can’t come up with any other cogent reason for such a limit.

Dropping the ceiling from 2.4m to 2.1m will still provide a usable room for everyone who can comfortable pass through a standard 2.05m door opening without ducking their head. But generally it WON’T affect the ventilation in that room if it is well ventilated to begin with.

Inclusion of a ceiling height of 2.4m as a recommendation for a habitable room in a TGD makes the limit of 2.4m advisory, not mandatory. I am happy for 2.4m to be a mandatory ceiling height limit defining a habitable room, but to be mandatory it needs to be made a statutory requirement.

However making 2.4m a statutory height limit doesn’t actually address what I see as the risk to life of attic conversions, in particular conversions of attics in a two storey dwelling. In this case an attic conversion extends the dwelling by a storey height.

There are several fairly onerous requirements in regard to fire safety in adding the extra storey. By limiting the definition of “habitable space” to a certain geometry and headroom, attic conversions often end up being defined as “storage space” rather than “habitable space”.

The fact is that most attic conversions are carried to provide an extra bedroom, either for a member of the occupant’s family or as a guest room; they are NOT carried out to provide storage space. Regardless of it being defined as a “storage space” simply because it is not deemed to accord with Diagram 3 of TGD F, and the probability that in a future house sale the sales brochure will describe the attic as storage rather than an additional bedroom, it doesn’t alter the fact that the attic will be used as a “habitable space”. Architects, engineers, surveyors and builders need to exercise their professional responsibilities and duty of care in this regard. When they know an attic is being converted for use as a habitable room it is dishonest and dangerous to pretend otherwise!

TGD Part B doesn’t require an attic conversion for storage space use to be built to the same high standards as habitable accommodation. Section 1.5.7 (Loft Conversions) specifically states that in the “case of an existing two storey dwelling to which a storey is to be added by converting the existing room space into habitable accommodation, the following provisions can apply….”. The corollary of that is that in the case of conversion of an attic as a non-habitable space those provisions don’t apply.

An attic space defined as “storage space” will not be constructed to the standards required in TGD B for habitable accommodation. When used for accommodation the users are patently at risk in the event of a fire. To knowingly define the attic as storage space when in fact it will be a habitable room and to be complicit in putting the occupants at risk in this way is totally unacceptable.

Perhaps it might be better to change the requirements of TGD B for loft conversions whereby any conversion which upgrades access into the attic and includes flooring the attic space imposes ALL the requirements currently required for habitable accommodation.

Other posts of interest:

One ‘L’ of a battle looming over DECLG Building Regulations | Michael Tweed

Fire Trap Home Buyers Beware | Still No Consumer Remedy

Fire Safety in Green, PassivHaus and Energy Smart Housing | CJ Walsh

Michael Clifford: “when will we address cracks in construction?” Irish Examiner

You can still buy a non-compliant home…and it’s all perfectly legal | SI.9 Loopholes

Is the scene set for another Priory Hall? | Look Back 11

Further questions over Newbridge fire-trap houses that have ‘no resale value’

Reintroduce State Inspection of Buildings | Mick Wallace T.D.

Fire-fighting | Rush and Lusk School

Priory Hall & Longboat Quay: “I’m convinced there are others” | Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Ministerial Review into Fire Safety is “…a joke” | Irish Examiner

Is Limerick Hotel fire a 3rd “Lucky Escape”?

Conditions perfect for curtailment of house building – including BC(A)R Costs | Independent

Key Elements Which Form the Basis of Effectively Functioning Building Legislation

Longboat Quay | Irish Times Letters to the Editor

12 thoughts on “Fire Risk and Attic Conversions | Michael Tweed

  1. Brendan Thomas

    Yes it is very interesting but doesn’t address the real risks to health and safety which attic use as ‘an extra bedroom changing to storage room when required’ causes. My recollection in the early 1990s when BC/BR was first introduced countrywide was that the 2.4m ceiling height came from an old English prescription relating to lanterns hanging from ceilings and not, as you state, to ventilation. It was known then and there seems to be an unwillingness to change at Department/Governemtn level. It would be interesting to know if BRAB, if it still exists – weren’t all those ‘quangos to be reduced in numbers – has had any thoughts on the topic.
    I enjoyed your piece
    Brendan Thomas

    Reply
  2. Paul Roddy

    Michael,
    Its even worse if you consider “Attic Conversions” at 2nd floor level.
    Even if the 2nd floor is finished out as a habitable room and meets the “habitable rule” height requirements, the stairs is almost never protected, as required in Part B Fire Safety. That is, no fire doors\ door closers, rebated frames, intumescent smoke seals, etc. at ground or first floor level, wet rooms excepted of course. Standard non fire rated timber stud partitions. So, in the event of a fire, the people asleep in the “habitable room ” in the 2nd floor attic will not be able to escape down the two flights of stairs.
    This is very common, although someone must have signed a cert. of compliance for that dwelling before it was first occupied.
    I come across noncompliance all the time and I’m sure I’m not the only one….

    Reply
  3. Michael Duffy

    Planning conditions have no business referring to BRegs. Two completely different systems at present. The condition you discuss demonstrates this. What about 3 storey new build with TF party wall?

    Reply
  4. Lester Naughton

    Had an heated argument on exactly this issue with a client recently. The client argument consisted of saying no one else with an 2nd floor attic meets the standards I said should be met , therefore I was making it up / costing them money. There’s 0 chance of building control turning up ( unless I’m a councilor in Dublin. ) So what happens they find another consultant or engage a builder directly.

    Reply
  5. Paul Roddy

    Does anyone know where I could get copies of the 1991 technical guidance documents?
    I had them years ago and got rid of them when the 1997 TGD’s were published.
    They don’t seem to be on the Dept. website.
    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. IBrendan Thomas

      I SEE BOTH 1997 AND 1991TGDs ON DoE SITE. I DIDNT ACTUALLY OPEN THE DOCUMENT BUT SAW THE FRONT PAGE.
      Now, for my query, does anyone have a copy of Eoin OCofaigh’s book called Building Regulations Explained. I ve tried all the usual suspects including the author, RIAI, EI etc. Amazon but its out of print
      BT

      Reply
      1. Michael O'Neill

        Is this is 1993 book? Or is there a later version. Certainly the RIAI should be taking up the baton that was dropped so badly by the DOE, but I do not mean just one competent person. Where is the “support” element of the RIAI brief for architects trying to work in this festering morass of unfair legislation?

        Reply
  6. Paul Roddy

    Hi Brendan, Many thanks for that. I didn’t know the DoE website had been revamped and the 1991 Regs are now available. They are scanned copies and not as easy search as their PDF cousins but great to have access to them all the same.
    I know a chap that used to have Eoin O’Cofaigh’s book years ago. I’ll get in touch and see if he still has it.

    Reply
    1. Brendan Thomas

      Thanks Paul. I bought a copy for my office in the early 90s but left there quite a few years ago and I doubt if they even know they have it.

      Reply

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