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“Fire resilience must be seen as crucial element of sustainability” asserts Business Sprinkler Alliance

14 November 2021

TOM ROCHE, secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, has suggested that there’s “no question” climate action will remain critical over the next decade, which is precisely why a change in the approach to the built environment will go some way towards meeting the nation’s climate change targets.

“A call for the use of natural construction materials, greater insulation and low carbon heat options should not be at the expense of fire performance,” asserted Roche. “Managing fire safety and energy objectives together makes perfect sense. When a building is not designed or built to withstand potentially catastrophic risks such as fire, then it can nullify the benefits gained from sustainable construction.”

According to the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) report, when adding emissions from the building construction industry to operational emissions, the built environment sector accounted for 38% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. “Pre-pandemic building emissions from the built environment in 2019 were noted to reach their highest level,” stated Roche. “Further, it has urged Governments to implement deep building renovation and performance standards for newly constructed buildings into pandemic recovery packages.”

Roche noted: “Action is needed if we are to meet the aspiration of net zero carbon by 2050. The drive to preserve resources will mean that a building will no longer follow the traditional linear model of ‘take, make, dispose’, but would instead be circular and built with reused materials and/or more organic (ie bio) materials. Buildings will also be able to be taken apart and deconstructed. Furthermore, a building will need to be flexible and adaptable in the short term, while also being built for the longer term when considering its internal use. They will also need to be smart and connected, using sensors to determine efficiency operations and user experience.”

Roche is a firm believer that, going forward, buildings will need to be considered more as a system and an asset where the value rests with their efficiency, flexibility and re-usability. “Protecting that reusability will therefore become an integral part of a building’s sustained value. Losing the materials and the building usability in a fire will see it taken out of the cycle. The end result will be a valuable resource taken to rebuild them and increasing lifecycle costs, as was noted in a recent study conducted by FM Global. Therefore, an holistic approach that addresses sustainability and fire resilience will be needed to deliver these outcomes. This will mean a shift in regulatory thinking as well.”

The current journey

For many years now, the construction industry has started this journey pursuing sustainable and green construction. That journey has been supported by Government regulations, incentives, certification schemes and the credits available within them.

“One of the most obvious items across Europe is the drive to insulate and use more natural products,” said Roche. “This has led to hybrid forms of construction that have admirable sustainability features over traditional methods of construction. However, we also know that a number of these construction forms burn. High-profile fire events have raised questions around the detailing and resilience of buildings where natural products are used as a structural material. There’s a clear need for research in this area, but also thinking in terms of what this means for long-term sustainability.”

Green rating systems and regulations may well recognise a high-performance building, suggests Roche, but you only have to look at the devastating consequences of a fire to realise that a building’s sustainability score does not mean immunity to fire. “In some cases, it means increased exposure to disproportionate damage when fire exposes part of the construction. Some structures have been completely destroyed by fire, meaning that their potential savings and green credentials are lost. Valuable resources are needed to recreate them, while their function has been interrupted for several months, if not years. Some see this as a signal that fire safety regulations deliver the wrong outcome for sustainability and others that there’s a ‘blind spot’ in certification schemes.”

That last point is neatly illustrated by the Carbon Neutral Laboratory in Nottingham, which was constructed using mass timber, but was destroyed shortly before it was completed in 2014. When it was rebuilt following the fire, it was in line with the regulations, followed the original design and there was no increase in fire resilience (ie no active fire protection). “The rebuild was shortlisted for awards specifically relating to its green credentials,” explained Roche. “Somehow, the disproportionate damage and resources lost in the original fire neither mattered nor counted. The original fire was consigned to history and had no bearing on claims for the efficiency and carbon neutral credentials of the building.”

Continuing that theme, Roche stated: “The point is not to dismiss these forms of construction. Rather, we should recognise that the current journey is bounded by thinking in differing silos. Sustainability and fire seldom join forces in regulatory thinking. However, fire incidents are challenging this thinking, most notably here in the UK following the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. What’s clear is that assuming our current guidance and techniques will deliver the required outcomes is short-sighted. New and more open thinking is needed.”

Active fire protection and sustainability

Roche suggests that active fire protection does not feature in this discussion. “Instead, it’s consigned to mirroring the state fire regulations in differing countries where the focus is on safety and limiting conflagration. A recent update on a study from 2015 carried out by the Fire Protection Research Foundation summarises this very neatly by looking at the challenges that need further research.”

Active protection systems like sprinklers are part of the building system and add to their overall carbon emissions. “However,” outlined Roche, “before dismissing active fire protection because of these emissions, its benefit needs to be weighed. Studies show the benefits to be realised in terms of minimising the impact of fire and emissions.”

A future view of the world of diverse construction materials and an ever-greater use of insulation means that careful thought must be given to their performance in a fire scenario. “This will lead to a path where minimising fire incidents will be important. Inevitably, it will see more thinking on the prevention of fire and the need to protect hard-won resources such that they can be used and the re-used. Active protection systems will increasingly make sense for this very reason. They will also make sense when thinking of the desire for buildings that can be flexible in use throughout their life. The whole-life cost of a building and its value will be tied to both of these concepts.”

That said, Roche has noted that active fire protection systems will need to continue to adapt in order to demonstrate their improving whole-life costs and, in tandem, their sustainability credentials. “This will require adapting test regimes, increased recycling of water and perhaps new technology to improve their already high effectiveness.”

In conclusion, Roche observed: “In a world where sustainability is key, a disposable building will no longer be the ‘right thinking’. I would contend that a sprinklered one will be.”