The Grenfell Tower fire sparked a whirlwind of reforms to the fire safety regulations for high rise residential buildings. The inquiry carried out after the incident highlighted the numerous problems in the industry that contributed to the mishap and the loss of life and property. The main culprit however, was the use of combustible cladding on the external wall system of high-rise buildings. The government immediately banned the use of ACM cladding and other combustible grade materials in the external wall systems of residential buildings. This led to existing high-rise residential buildings having to undergo expensive refurbishment work in order to be compliant with the latest regulations.
The External Wall System 1 form (EWS1 form) was introduced to keep stakeholders updated on the status of combustible materials in the external walls of high-rise residential buildings. The EWS1 form was designed to put an end to the mortgage crisis for flat owners but, two years since its introduction, it has had anything but the desired effect and has trapped about 1.2 million leaseholders around England.
What is the EWS1 form?
The EWS1 form is part of the process where a suitably qualified professional is required to inspect the external wall systems of buildings and fill out a form with the key findings. Based on the materials used in the external wall system, the form helps key stakeholders determine the fire safety status of the building and gives them an idea if it requires remediation work in order to be compliant with the new regulations. The fact that buildings needed remediation work was essential for understanding the valuation of the building.
The form that was introduced to unclog the market and create assurance for all stakeholders, has ended up causing several new problems for the industry since its introduction.
The EWS Crisis
While the EWS1 form was only required for residential buildings over the height of 18m, Advice Note 14 stated that buildings of all heights should be checked and remediated regardless of height. After this, lenders began to ask for an EWS1 form for all blocks, regardless of height. By summer last year, at least seven of the country’s major banks required an EWS1 form for all blocks under that height.
The changing government guidance under the Advice Note 14 led to an enormous extension of the crisis as the scope of the evaluation was extended. According to government statistics, there are around 12,000 residential buildings taller than 18m in England, containing 441,000 leasehold properties. When you take that down to buildings of 11m and above, that number rises to 88,000 buildings containing more than 1.2 million leasehold homes.
Some banks took things even further and requested an EWS1 form for three-storey buildings of 9m and even lower in some cases. All this overwhelming demand for a sector nowhere near well-resourced enough to meet it led to clogging of the system. The number of qualified professionals required to carry out these checks was limited, which caused long waiting times for anyone requesting an EWS evaluation.
The shortage of qualified professionals to sign off on all parts of the EWS system has also led to difficulties in securing insurance cover for buildings at risk. Insurers worry that the language in the EWS1 form shifts responsibility to the party conducting the review and opens them up to unlimited liability. This means that if the walls of a building have been signed off as safe by an assessor and this turns out to be wrong, the assessor could be the one liable for ensuing damages. This has led to professional indemnity insurers advising companies not to sign EWS1 forms.
The Future of the EWS1 form
The EWS1 system is here to stay, but we can expect to see some attempts to fix existing issues in the system. A state-backed insurance indemnity scheme is being set up to secure those inspectors struggling to get cover. The RICS has also secured new insurance terms to increase the fire safety cover for chartered surveyors. This applies to buildings under four storeys only however.
The government has also announced a fund of £700,000 for the RICS to train 2000 new assessors to carry out checks in low and medium-risk buildings. This will greatly help to reduce waiting time for those requesting an EWS1 check.