Fire protection in modern buildings

Embedding fire protection into building design, throughout construction and across the supply chain

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Global Fire Engineering Manager, Sherwin-Williams Protective & Marine Coatings

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Bob Glendenning is Global Fire Engineering Manager, Sherwin-Williams Protective & Marine Coatings.
March 1, 2018


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Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of the Building Regulations ordered after the Grenfell Tower disaster found that the system being used by the construction industry is simply “not fit for purpose” and open to abuse.

Increasingly, the industry is using complex structural steel to meet the needs of modern city construction, and with it comes a more complicated supply chain.

However, there is no reason to accept shortcomings in best practice. Where lives and property are at stake, structural fire engineering methods simply cannot be compromised.

Dame Judith’s interim report does not go into specifics, but it does say that the next phase, which is scheduled to be completed in the spring, will examine issues such as sprinklers, cladding, alarm systems and escape routes.

Meanwhile, building goes on. And we, along with other fire protection organisations, believe there is a best practice gap in terms of identifying necessary steps for even the most complex structural steelwork and providing authoritative guidance for those in the supply chain.

Indeed, we are fully supporting a new initiative aimed to bridge these gaps. Created by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Association of Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) the Plan of Works for Fire is pushing for detailed specification for fire protection at the design stage and a schedule for fire protection throughout the construction process.

Mandatory sign-offs

The process being developed will include mandatory sign-offs as construction progresses, with all information reaching the end user to support adequate fire risk management.

The ASFP is also working with one of its technical sub-groups and the British Coatings Federation on new best practice guidance for specifying intumescent (reactive) coatings. The guide is set to include a useful ‘tick list’ to assist specifiers and is due for publication very soon.

Intumescent coatings have given architects much more freedom of design, allowing them to create more interestingly shaped and fully glazed buildings with the steel frame on show. You need only look at the London skyline to see how these stunning buildings have grown in popularity and imagination in recent years.

Like some other forms of protection, it’s critical to the performance of these life safety coatings that the design of the applied thickness is done correctly. Put simply, if the thickness isn’t correct, then the fire protection will likely be inadequate.

Long-span construction, with fewer columns, coupled with down-stand cellular beam construction to incorporate services through floor beams, is now commonplace

In recent years, and particularly over the past five to 10, the UK steel construction industry for medium and high-rise buildings has evolved rapidly. It’s now commonplace to see long-span construction, with fewer columns, coupled with down-stand cellular beam construction to incorporate services through floor beams, rather than below as was the norm some years ago.

This construction style brings several advantages that cut costs and make more floors available: more ‘lettable’ floor area, future-proofed spaces, lines of uninterrupted view, faster construction and reduced floor zone depths allowing lower building height.

Blurred lines of communication

However, lines of communication become increasingly blurred between the various supply chain parties involved.

From the designer, to the specifier and to suppliers through to the installers and building control officers, the detail can be lost, misunderstood or not addressed at all.

One issue in the protection of steel structures, for example, is to make assumptions about the steel design output and subsequent ‘redundant’ load-bearing strength and therefore the level of coating protection required.

To underestimate for any reason is a high-risk approach that should be questioned vigorously. Only ‘actual’ design output should be used and be supplied by the project design team.

To assume a value to gain a competitive advantage or solve a challenge is not engineering; it’s potentially risking life and property safety.

To put this into context, existing legislation under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, means those responsible for commercial buildings including the employer, owner, or any other person with control of any part of the premises, must carry out a detailed fire risk assessment identifying risks and hazards in the premises.

The responsible person usually has to call in a fire engineer or qualified (competent) person or specialist to assess the risk and make calculations about fire engineering design depending on the type of building, occupancy type and the risk.

Based on the findings of the assessment, building owners, managers or employers need to ensure that adequate and appropriate fire safety measures are in place to minimise the risk of injury or loss of life in the event of a fire.

Responsibility cascades through the supply chain

The starting point here lies with the architect, and then the specifier for recommending the most suitable products and standards they must reach. Responsibility cascades through the supply chain to the manufacturer, the installers and officers auditing quality and safety through to sign-off.

The fire engineer or consultant should also be factored in earlier rather than later by the project design team – and this is where problems can emerge. If the fire engineer is called in to assess fire safety when the project is at an advanced stage and the solution has to be ‘retro-fitted’, this can be too late.

Working with the steel fabricator, the fire protection measures – as with other safety measures – can be developed effectively early in the development of design, taking into consideration the material and requirements according to structural design, fire design and other parts, for example cellular beams.

The fire protection contractor may be considering on-site application or off-site depending on preference, so how this may affect the process of fire safety measures should be considered too.

A decision should be made early in the process on how compartmentation for fire safety will affect detailing for the application of specialist fire coatings

A decision should be made early in the process on how compartmentation for fire safety will affect detailing for the application of specialist fire coatings as well as any attachments required. The specialist manufacturers – suppliers – need to be consulted in this process.

Running in parallel, the issue of insurance should be addressed. Has the insurer been consulted at the relevant milestones in the development, and has all relevant information been provided for them?

In keeping the fire and rescue service informed of the project’s fire design, it’s recommended that the fire safety officer is notified of specification and materials requiring approval for reasons of access, once again as early as possible. Local authority building control should also be consulted at the most appropriate milestones.

In handing over to the owner or manager, is the development delivering what they expected? And is design and specification meeting the required level of compliance throughout the process with all necessary certificates and approvals?

Only when this process has been completed can we know that necessary steps have been taken.

We would like to see more formal, prescriptive guidance for the supply chain that fosters greater collaboration between various professionals. This may be incorporated within existing Building Regulations (ADB), or separately.

The whole supply chain has a part to play, and we should all accept our responsibilities with due care.

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Plus, we explore the growing risks of lithium-ion battery fires and hear from experts in disability evacuation and social housing.


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Steven Richardson
Steven Richardson
March 2, 2018 12:03 pm

Another thought provoking article in the wake of the Hackitt interim report on a key issue. Although I cant help but feel that work is still being carried out in an un-coordinated matter and in silos. We have now had several articles from different agencies laying out their visions and there is some progress being made. However, none of this addresses one of the key issues of the Hackitt interim report regarding cross industry collaboration. It feels as though there are several agencies wanting to be first to bring to the table a solution to an issue identified in the… Read more »