Danger of value engineering affecting life safety

The danger of value engineering when life safety is at stake

The manufacturing press is awash with news of soaring raw material prices and increased energy costs. In the light of the dramatic increases in material costs, property owners need to increase what they budget for when it comes to fire doors.  However, as manufacturers across the UK struggle to source materials, there is a real risk of life safety being sacrificed by value engineering that strives to maintain pre-crisis prices. Value engineering clearly has its place, but it must not be allowed to affect life safety. Fire doors are life-saving devices and should not be produced with cheap materials or by taking short-cuts – to do so would be reckless in the extreme and has clear potential to result in loss of life further down the line.

Race to the bottom

Construction is a hugely competitive industry, and everyone involved is always under a lot of pressure to keep costs down.  Many projects are now awarded through electronic tendering systems where a large proportion of points are awarded to low-cost bids. While this has its place in delivering value to the market, it’s easy to see why quality and standards can start to slip in critical areas in an industry where players are continually forced to undercut their competitors? 

Testing and certification

Let’s take testing and certification for an example. It is possible, and cheaper, to assemble a fire door with alternative door core through to less dense timber lippings than that tested, and still call it a fire door.  But is this right? That fire door may look like a fire door but is it going to be up the job in the event of a fire?  We simply don’t know because it hasn’t been tested.  It may well be signed off by a building control officer, because he/she can only sign off what is visible to the eye, and if lesser materials have been swapped in or badly fitted and painted over, it is very difficult for the building control officer to spot.

It's important to be aware that building control officers are not just responsible for fire doors, which in themselves require a certain degree of specialist knowledge – they have a huge range of items to check within their remit. If a door is signed off and later fails, resulting in the loss of life, the responsibility reverberates right back up the chain, through installation, testing and certification, manufacturing, specification and budget setting.  

Manufacturing

Manufacturing is a hard place to be right now.  Door manufacturers cannot be expected to simply absorb increases in raw materials and energy costs without passing them on. The risk is that when faced with cost pressures from property owners, or materials shortages in the face of project deadlines, some could feel tempted to substitute specified hardwood parts with softwood or plywood alternatives, or to swap in a door closer of an equivalent power size that simply hasn’t been fire tested. Not all closers are the same, and if something is cheap, there is undoubtedly a very good reason. 

Testing

Speaking of testing, this is another area where costs have risen significantly. Imagine how much gas a 60 minute fire test uses, then consider how much the cost of that gas has risen in recent times. It should come as no surprise that the cost of conducting a fire test has already risen by up to 30%. Therefore, the cost of a properly-tested and certified fire door set, or indeed any fully tested and third-party certified components, will rise too. Putting serious downward pressure through value engineering on the cost of the fire door package for any building In our opinion potentially runs the risk of ending up with a fire door set that is not effective.

Installation

Installation is unfortunately another area where contractors that have been subjected to harsh value engineering may try to cut costs, resulting in serious risk when it comes to life-safety parts of the building. Not using the door manufacturer’s approved installers is a classic cost-cutting move that often ends in doors not being fitted to manufacturers’ guidelines. Typical examples of installation errors include using the wrong fire mastic, installing with the wrong fixings or not enough of them, or applying incorrect intumescent. Paying untrained installers on a piecework basis is also a recipe for shoddy workmanship, as they rush to install as many doors as possible to earn the maximum money in the least amount of time.  

The dangers of this sort of approach came to light a few years ago when it was revealed that lorry drivers working on construction sites in central London were incentivised by being paid per load delivered – this led to reckless driving in an effort to maximise the number of loads per day and cyclists were crushed to death by lorry drivers not paying enough attention to the traffic around them.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. And when it comes to life saving devices, this has a serious side to it.  If a fire door is surprisingly low in price, there will be a reason, and that door should be treated with scepticism. Testing and maintaining standards costs money. As manufacturers of life saving devices, we need to stand firm and insist on those standards being maintained. Likewise, project owners need to recognise that preserving life safety is more important than coming in on budget – especially when that budget was set pre-'global supply chain failure'.

We suggest that items critical to life safety should be taken out of the typical blanket e-tendering and value engineering processes and given more attention to ensure that real protection is maintained. Life is too precious to drive its value down through commercial processes. 

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