PIR Insulation boards hit the headlines in 2017 after the Grenfell Tower disaster. Yet its trade association struggled to gain recognition as the go-to experts. IMA Chief executive Simon Storer spoke to Simon Robinson about what happens next for the sector and the association.
View from the Top: The changing face of UK PIR and PUR
In the 12 months that Simon Storer has been in post as the Chief Executive of the UK’s rigid polyurethane foam association, he has changed its name and dealt with the fall-out from the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s been a busy year.
‘We had decided to change the name before the Grenfell tragedy, so Grenfell wasn’t the reason,’ Storer said. ‘Changing the name of a trade association can be difficult. I knew BRUFMA when I was at the CPA [Construction Products Association], but I’d always felt that, apart from the word foam, the rest of the name meant little to most people.’
The trouble is that, outside of the sector, foam is generally understood to mean flexible, upholstery foam, Storer explained. Historically, this may not have mattered much, and the Association had the same name since its foundation in 1967. The Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017 confirmed that the association needed to be more recognisable as the representative for the PIR and PUR sector.
Storer believes this lack of understanding meant that in the hours, days and weeks following the Grenfell Tower fire, nobody knew to come to the association for information. ‘There was so much said by people who were not representative of the PIR sector,’ he said. This also made it impossible for BRUFMA to put the industry’s case about the correct use of PIR insulation boards in such situations.
‘If we are to be responsible for our messages, we need to be the go-to organisation,’ he said. ‘By changing the name, we have made ourselves more available and more open.’
Becoming the Insulation Manufacturers’ Association may seem like a bold step for a 51-year old group with a focus on rigid foam, but Storer explains that the association represents the majority of thermal insulation sold in the UK. ‘We have 30% more capacity opening up in the next couple of years, with three new lines coming on stream,’ he said.
In all, 10 insulation board makers have operations in the UK and Ireland. There are also eight associate members — featuring four of the five global MDI producers — and six other companies involved, including blowing agent makers. This means IMA covers all the PIR and PUR producers in the UK market.
‘As we have to continue to increase the energy performance of buildings, rigid polyurethane/polyisocyaurate is the best way to do it,’ he said. Highly efficient insulation is expected to take a progressively larger market share in the future.
Yet the Grenfell tragedy will cast a shadow for some time to come. ‘We all want buildings that are safer, but the construction industry also has a responsibility to ensure buildings achieve other targets that are set by government and society,’ Storer said. ‘Buildings must be warmer and more efficient, more comfortable with lower bills and better health for the occupants. ‘
If we only concentrate on one criterion, we are, in effect, saying that we build buildings today that we know will not be satisfactory in 20-30 years’ time and that these buildings will need to be refurbished by the next generation. We know how difficult that is to do.’
He added that, thankfully, tragedies like Grenfell are an extremely rare occurrence. ‘There was likely a combination of failures,’ he said. ‘No sprinklers, no fire doors, no second exit, no escape instructions. We have got to get it right and the Hackitt report gives us an opportunity to do this.’
Judith Hackitt, lately chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive, has been commissioned by the UK Government to look into the system of building control and specifications following the Grenfell disaster. Unlike the public inquiry and the Metropolitan Police’s criminal investigation into the causes of the fire, the Hackitt report, ‘Building a safer future’ is an independent review of building regulations and fire safety that looks to the future.
‘Many people in the construction sector have felt for some time that the system was not good. It has become too complex and too open to interpretation,’ Storer explained. The temptation following the Grenfell tragedy is to create a quick fix, but there isn’t going to be one that stands the test of time, he claimed.
And this is why IMA warmly welcomed Hackitt’s interim report, which finds UK building regulations to be ‘not fit for purpose’.
Building regulations may seem a long way removed from the polyurethane industry, but it is an area where the reputation of the rigid insulation manufacturers stands or falls. The products’ reputation depends on how it is specified and installed on buildings.
Hackitt’s interim report has outlined a number of areas that affected the use of materials supplied by IMA companies in the Grenfell refurbishment. As the report states, ‘Design change control and quality assurance are poor throughout the process. What is initially being designed is not being built, and quality assurance of materials and people is seriously lacking.’
The interim report adds that in the UK there is no process to ensure that specification changes are adequately assessed in terms of building performance or safety.
IMA plans to help educate specifiers, architects and builders through a series of industry round-tables in the UK in 2018, Storer said. And he looks forward to the publication of the full Hackitt report with great interest.
Storer’s first year in charge was busy. His second is set to be extremely busy, too.