By Iain Cox, Chair of Business Sprinkler Alliance
First coined by Elon Musk to describe his first electric car battery production plant, the term ‘gigafactory’ has become generic for any large-scale facility that produces lithium batteries for cars on massive scale. These buildings are cropping-up across the globe and gigafactory has even been used to describe any expansive, high-volume manufacturing plant. But as the scale, innovation and modernity of these buildings evolves, so should fire safety. What measures can these businesses undertake as part of their drive to be resilient and protected?
Gigafactories are truly enormous and while Tesla’s gigafactory is one of the largest buildings on earth by footprint at a staggering four million square feet, one thing is clear: fire safety needs to be front and centre of the design and must evolve with these buildings of tomorrow. In the UK we have seen plans for at least three of these facilities. The latest, Britishvolt, is set to build a Gigaplant in Northumberland capable of manufacturing enough batteries for 300,000 electric vehicles each year and equivalent in size to 50 football pitches. Recent reports of design changes to the £300 million building and a halt to construction suggest that the creation of a complex building on this scale is not without its challenges. The car battery manufacturer hopes to start its assembly lines in mid-2025, a delay of more than a year.
It is often the case, that when new industrial and commercial buildings are built it can be without the knowledge of what they were going to be used for, they are built speculatively. Gigafactories pose a differing challenge as the emerging technology that they are set to produce is constantly evolving. The processes they need to house will also be evolving and need to be accommodated. The building designers are therefore given the challenging task of creating a structure that can accommodate such innovation and the fire loads within. In any large-scale, complex building such as this, it is paramount that fire safety is not taken lightly to ensure the safety and protection of the occupiers and the resilience of the business.
Decision makers often consider the risk of fire is catered for by following building regulations when envisioning their new building, even though the guidance to those regulations is limited. In fact, an industrial building the size of 50 football pitches is outside the scope of that guidance as it is a unique and complex building. We may see similarities in the labels we are giving to parts of these large-scale buildings with terms like warehouse, industrial process or a factory but they are not a “common building”.
This means taking a different approach to defining and engineering the fire safety and protection of such large facilities. It may be a surprise to many but a key fire protection component in current gigafactories and existing ones are automatic fire sprinklers. The array of processes under one roof, scale and complex hazards means a flexible protection system is needed to protect the general facility and those working within it. Automatic fire sprinklers are ideal for this purpose, with specific protection elements for individual processes.
Some may question whether it is appropriate to use sprinklers. In August 2018, a Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada suffered limited damage when a fire broke out in the production area late in the evening. The installed sprinklers suppressed the fire which was finally extinguished by the fire service. The facility returned to production the next morning,1 demonstrating the effectiveness of sprinkler systems as the perfect tool for physical resilience and business continuity.
As the UK plans its own gigafactories, mega-warehouses and similar industrial buildings are also likely to proliferate in the coming years. We must think of the performance of these buildings over time and consider the impact of fire and its consequences. Now is the time to think of how, and why, we should protect these valuable assets which may not be glamorous, but nonetheless are vital as part of the UK’s business infrastructure. We can build even bigger buildings, but ultimately when there is a fire and no protection, the fire service cannot deal with it. Protecting the value of such properties and those who work within them should always be top of the agenda.