By Tom Roche, Secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance
There is no question that climate action will remain critical over the next decade, which is why a change in the approach to the built environment will go some way to meeting our 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. 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 (UNEP) report,1 when adding emissions from the building construction industry on top of 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. Further it has urged governments to implement deep building renovation and performance standards for newly constructed buildings into pandemic recovery packages.
Action is needed if we are to meet the aspiration of net zero carbon by 2050. The 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.
We will need to consider a building more as a system and an asset where the value is in its 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 result will be a valuable resource taken to rebuild them and increasing lifecycle costs as was noted by a study by FM Global.2 Therefore, a holistic approach that addresses sustainability and fire resilience will be needed to deliver these outcomes. This will mean a shift in regulatory thinking too.
The current journey
For many years now the construction industry has started this journey pursuing sustainable and green construction. This has been supported by government regulations, incentives, certification schemes and the credits within them.
One of the most obvious items across Europe is the drive to insulate and use more natural products. 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 is 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, 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 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. Some see this as a signal that fire-safety regulations deliver the wrong outcome for sustainability and others that there is a blind spot in certification schemes.
This is neatly illustrated by the Carbon Neutral laboratory in Nottingham, UK 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 regulations, it followed the original design and there was no increase in fire resilience – no active fire protection. The rebuild was showered with short listings for awards relating to its green credentials. Somehow the disproportionate damage and resources lost in the original fire did not matter or count. The original fire was consigned to history and had no bearing on the claims for the efficiency and carbon neutral credentials.
The point is not to row back and dismiss these forms of construction. Rather that we recognise that the current journey is bounded by thinking in differing silos. Sustainability and fire seldom come together in Regulatory thinking. However, fire incidents are challenging this thinking most notably here in the UK following the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. What is clear is that assuming that our current guidance and techniques will deliver the required outcomes is short sighted. New, open thinking is needed.
Active fire protection and sustainability
Active fire protection does not feature in this discussion. Instead, it is 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 by the Fire Protection Research Foundation summarises this very neatly by looking at the challenges that need further research.3
Active protection systems like sprinklers are part of the building system and add to their overall carbon emissions. However, before dismissing active fire protection because of these emissions their benefit needs to be weighed. Studies show their benefits in minimising the impact of fire and emissions.4
In a future view of the world of diverse construction materials and ever greater use of insulation we will need to think clearly about their performance in fire. 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 the hard-won resources so that they can be used and reused. Active protection systems will increasingly make sense for this 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 these concepts.
That said, active fire protection systems will need to continue to adapt to demonstrate their improving whole-life costs and sustainability credentials too. This will require adapting test regimes, increased recycling of water and perhaps new technology to improve their already high effectiveness.
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.
For more information, go to www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org
1 2020 GLOBAL STATUS REPORT FOR BUILDINGS AND CONS TRUCTION, Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction – UNEP
2 The influence of risk factors on sustainable development – FM Global -2010
3 Fire Safety Challenges of ‘Green’ Buildings and Attributes – FPRF – 2020
4 Environmental Impact of Automatic Fire Sprinklers – FMGlobal – 2011