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Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
June 1, 2023

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Sustainability & fire safety

‘Fire engineering must keep up with green building innovation’ – Where are the blind spots?

The fire safety challenges of green buildings and sustainable living were analysed at the opening session of the Green Fire Safety Issues conference, held alongside FIREX in London in May. Ron Alalouff reports.

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Guillermo Rein, Professor of Fire Science at Imperial College London

In his keynote presentation, Guillermo Rein, Professor of Fire Science at Imperial College London, outlined the key layers of fire protection. They are, he explained: precaution; detection, compartmentation; suppression; evacuation; and structural resistance.

None of them is perfect, he said, but hopefully enough will work together to prevent a disaster.

In the US, more reliance is placed on suppression in the form of sprinklers, whereas in the UK there is greater reliance on compartmentation.

“Regulations are not everything”

But regulation is not the be all and end all of fire safety. The Titanic complied with all codes; lawyers can make any device legal, but only engineers can make it safe.

“So regulations are only the bare minimum and there is plenty of room above them to provide safety.”

Rein asked delegates to imagine a world in which there were no regulations but instead there was a market for safe living.

Following this logic, in terms of fire safety, the best building in terms of fire suppression would be an igloo, the best in terms of fire resistance would be a wartime bunker, and the best in terms of fire prevention would be the International Space Station, because on its strict restrictions on flammable materials.

Where are our blind spots?

But who would want to live in any of these?

There is an apparent contradiction in fire safety with two opposing narratives. Looking at the exponential rise in worldwide flammable plastic production, Narrative A suggests that the end of the world is nigh.


Read more: Are the sustainability and fire safety agendas compatible? 


But looking at the continuous fall in the number of fires per dwelling in London over the last decade or so, it could be said that “we are doing just fine” and there’s no need to change anything.

The truth is, neither is wholly true – there are blind spots among all the stats. For example, the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 is an outlier in the otherwise declining trend of fatalities in fires in London. The subject of facade fires worldwide went from being a blind spot in the 1990s to being an elephant in the room.

Fire engineering challenges of green buildings

So, where are the other blind spots?

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Image credit: Hugh Threlfall/AlamyStock

The built environment is always changing and fire safety must keep up. There are novel materials and features appearing before they are really understood. But fires from these materials are not seen in the stats yet, so are not covered in regulations and standards. Therefore, solutions to these problems are not part of our toolbox – yet.

Rein set out two examples of contemporary sustainability trends affecting fire safety.

The use of timber in construction. While reducing carbon emissions compared to steel and concrete, this still means using a product that is flammable to some degree, so fire engineering is a prerequisite to the safe design of tall buildings using timber.

Meanwhile, in terms of energy and fire, lithium-ion batteries were until recently an elephant in the room, but now statistics are being collated from the likes of London Fire Brigade to show the exponential rise in battery fires.

“My current elephant in the room is stationary energy storage systems, which are usually hidden away in basements of buildings.

“We are doing well, but we can do better. Fire engineering must keep up with building innovation in green buildings and sustainability.”

 

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