Urban exploring has proliferated in recent years despite the risks. FMs must prevent urban explorers accessing empty properties, says Mark Williams.
8 October 2015 | By Mark Williams
Urban explorers infiltrate and photograph all sorts of abandoned manmade structures including derelict and decrepit factories and fallout shelters, amusement parks and asylums.
Cities all over the world offer hidden gems, including the UK. There as numerous websites dedicated to the activity, including Urbex, the Urban Explorer, Subterranea Britannica, 28 Days Later, and Urban Sickness.
Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints. These are the unspoken rules of urban exploring. But it is not that straightforward. The hobby can be a dangerous one and there have been a number of deaths in recent years. And increasingly, metal thieves, squatters, travellers and others are using urban exploring websites to research their targets.
The property owners are legally required to maintain a safe property, even when the building is vacant. In the UK, under the Defective Premises Act and Occupiers Liability Act, landlords have a duty of care towards third parties who might be injured by their failure to maintain or repair the property.
Under the Health and Safety Act 1974, employers must ensure the health and safety of others, as well as employees. 'Others' might include contractors, the general public, visitors, patients and students.
Landlords and owners also have a duty to ensure safe access and egress for those using the premises, and ensure that buildings are safe.
People in control of premises, and even people entering the premises to work - if the matter is within their control - also have duties to maintain or repair the premises and any means of access to or egress from it.
Property owners and FMs are therefore obliged to take steps to stop urban explorers accessing their property, or they risk contravening the law.
Prevention begins with assessing the risks of the property. Think about the risks inherent in a former industrial unit that contains several factory buildings and has been empty for years. The unit is listed on urban exploring websites and gets frequent visits. It is surrounded by hazards including deep water, a busy road and a railway track. There have been several arson attacks on the buildings that have weakened their structures. And some floors have holes in them - with a drop of three or four storeys.
An inspector will perform a retrospective review of the current risk provisions of the unit. Areas that are high risk or downright dangerous will be highlighted, and suggestions will be made for improvements.
High-risk properties such as empty industrial buildings on secluded sites may require strong security measures such as alarms, integrated monitoring and rapid response.
Fencing, perimeter security posts and other physical barriers to entry could be installed to restrict access to the building. Temporary structures such as walls, boarding or scaffolding could also be installed, although these may require planning permission. It is also likely to be necessary to add boarding, shutters, bars/grilles or tailor-made security screens such as steel screens, permascreens or polymer screens to external doors and windows.
Other forms of security such as electronic security systems, manned guarding solutions and alarm systems could also be needed.
Carrying out regular inspections of your buildings or site - and taking action quickly in the event of problems - is useful for warding off urban explorers, and for preventing petty crimes of graffiti, arson and other damage escalating. Inspections are a form of policing and can pick up new access points and danger points.
Insurers may also require regular inspections. Commercial insurance policies often have a clause about periods of vacancy, and insurers normally require properties to be inspected at around 30 days and then weekly or fortnightly after that.
Inspections should be regular but on rotation to ensure that they cannot be pre-empted by people surveying the building. The inspector tends to complete a list of pre-agreed questions about the building's security and compliance, which are compiled based on the requirements of the insurance policy.
The inspector will keep a record of when the visit took place, what was inspected and any incidents found. If an insurance claim is made, this audit trail will more than likely be requested by the insurance company.
Failing to comply
Failure to comply with legislation and insurance requirements can be costly. In the UK, one trespasser who was injured falling through the roof of a vacant commercial property that was poorly maintained received £567,000 in compensation.
And, failure to adequately secure a property can even prove fatal. In 2007, a man died after a fall at a long-abandoned industrial complex in Denver, Colorado. He had gone there to explore the inside and take photos, but fell 30 feet into an open lift shaft. His family filed a lawsuit against the developers and various subcontractors for negligence.
Mark Williams is business development director of vacant property services firm Orbis