Commissioning is an important part of a building’s fit-out and is where decisions related to its functions, fittings and performance all have to be made. Matters related to fire are also a critical consideration with the fire protection part of this.
This raises the question as to what outcome you want in the event of a fire, perhaps beyond the escape of the occupants: fire contained and extinguished; fire contained to one area; even accepting the loss of the building. A developer may value a building in one way and an end user may value it another way, which is why the decisions you make at this stage will impact the building throughout its lifecycle. This is why everyone needs to understand what the results will be in the event of fire. This feature looks at the decision-making process and the lifecycle costs of fire.
In a world of such unpredictability, no one knows what the future will hold. How will it look in 2050? One thing is for certain: sustainability would be first and foremost a central driver for the health and wellbeing of occupants and the value of a building. The issue of climate change and a drive to preserve resources will mean a building will no longer follow the traditional linear model of ‘take, make, dispose’ but would be circular and built with reused materials and/or more organic (bio) materials. Buildings will also be able to be taken apart and deconstructed. Furthermore, a building will need to be flexible and adaptable to both the short term whilst being built for the long term when considering its internal use. They will also need to be smart and connected, using sensors to determine efficiency operations and user experience.
Looking ahead, we need to consider building more as a system and in another, as an asset where the value is in its efficiency, flexibility and reusability. Protecting that reusability will therefore become key to a building’s sustained value. Losing the materials and the building usability in a fire will see it taken out of the cycle – the result will be a valuable resource taken to rebuild them.
Green ratings vs immunity to fire
One of the themes in recent years is that the construction industry has started this journey and pursued sustainable and green construction. This has been supported by green certification schemes and the credits within them. However, today those same certification schemes are silent on fire resilience. Managing safety and energy objectives together makes perfect sense. When a building is not designed or built to withstand potentially catastrophic risks such as fire, it can nullify the benefits gained from green construction. Fires in newly built buildings with such a high-level rating in green certification schemes have occurred, from the Carbon Neutral laboratory at Nottingham University to a large distribution warehouse in Daventry. The buildings have achieved high BREEAM ratings for their renewable carbon technologies and construction materials – but have been completely destroyed by fire meaning their potential saving and green credentials are gone. Valuable resources are needed to recreate them and their function has been interrupted for several months, if not years.
This is made ever more plain by the rebuild of the Carbon Neutral laboratory in Nottingham which when rebuilt after the fire was showered with awards relating to its green credentials. Somehow the resources lost in the original fire did not matter. This raises a fundamental issue about how sustainable a project can be when one considers fire as a serious hazard to the growth of a business and the destruction of buildings and their contents. Important conversations need to be had on whether events such as fire should be more of a factor in how we measure a building’s sustainability. In short, fire safety should be considered at every stage of a building’s lifecycle.
A hidden cost of green construction
In terms of efficiency, it is clear that there is a drive to using more natural products but we also know they burn. For example, the use of timber is considered to be more sustainable for certain buildings than other traditional methods of construction. High-profile fire events have raised questions around the detailing and resilience of buildings where timber is used as a structural material.
Designed and built using timber-frame technology, Beechmere Care Home in Crewe suffered a catastrophic fire in 2019. Sixteen fire engines and more than 70 firefighters attended a blaze, which started at the roof but completely destroyed the timber-framed complex. The building did not contain any active fire protection, like sprinklers. If the incident commander had not overruled the ‘stay-put’ policy and ordered a full and immediate evacuation of the 150 residents, the outcome of this fire would have had very different consequences. Technically, the building should have had a stronger compartmentation strategy but clearly it didn’t.
The fire at Beechmere was not alone in 2019 and 2020 to see such types of construction involved in fire. It once again highlights the rationale for greater consideration of property protection alongside life safety as a reasonable requirement. Such an expectation would result in more buildings being designed to be resilient to disproportionate damage, using combinations of passive and active fire safety measures.
Flexible and adaptable
As the world moves into different ways of working, a building’s flexibility in use throughout its lifecycle will mean traditional views of protection from physical components will need to adapt. This is where fire strategies will need to adapt and the role of flexible automatic fire protection can make a difference. For instance, by considering and incorporating automatic sprinklers at the earliest stages of the design process, stakeholders can realise and benefit from a wealth of design freedoms which add value to any project.
Enabling flexibility with respect to the use of the available building plot and internal layouts, sprinkler systems can form part of a fire-engineered design, enhancing the fire separation between different areas, whilst offering greater use of glazing for natural light. They can also help facilitate atrium design, complimenting the schemes for compartmentation and smoke ventilation system requirements.
While the lifesaving and property-protection benefits of sprinklers are undisputed and well known, the inclusion of automatic sprinkler systems within offices, for example, can add value to a scheme by increasing design options, saving on capital costs and the construction programme.
Whole life costs
So, a future view of the world where we need to consider protecting the hard-won resources so that they can be used and reused alongside a desire to obtain flexibility in use leads to a path where active protection systems will increasingly make sense. The whole-life cost of a building and its value will be tied to these concepts.
Fire protection systems like sprinklers will continue to adapt to demonstrate their improving whole-life costs and energy credentials too through changing test regimes, increased recycling of water and perhaps new technology to improve their already high effectiveness. One thing is clear: whether you are building an office or hotel, a warehouse or industrial facility, the consideration of automatic sprinklers as a key part of the fire strategy at the earliest stages of the design process will enable stakeholders to defend their asset in terms of its long-term sustainability and value. A disposable building will no longer be an acceptable outcome.
For more information, go to www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org