Better design: integrating fire engineering
22 June 2018
Integrating fire engineering from the start of the design process can help ensure safety among other benefits, writes Mark Anderson
Holistic fire engineering can provide both the safest and most cost-effective buildings – yet this approach is rarely adopted in Australia. At present, fire engineers mainly deal with fire-related issues after they have arisen and are noted by a building surveyor or certifier.
There are very few Australian architecture practices with an in-house fire engineer who works in an integrated design team of architects and engineers to create buildings that are optimised for all variables, including fire safety.
In the UK, Foster and Partners is one architecture practice that does have this capability, using it to identify problems early and solve them before a design leaves the concept stage.
But fire engineering should be dealt with in the same way as sustainability and environmental aspects are; that is, at the outset of design, and subsequently as an integral part of the whole process.
There any many benefits to holistic fire engineering. These include:
- ensuring that a fire-engineered solution takes into account all threats to the building, its occupants and usage; any hazardous event could be included based on a risk assessment, such as arson
- taking into consideration all relevant fire-related regulations, at both state and national level
- using prescriptive or performance regulations, whichever are most applicable
- providing an analysis that is auditable
- an assessment by an independent, qualified body.
The design process should include the following measures:
- a review of quality before design begins, to enable all stakeholders to understand the building, its processes and occupancy profile
- identification of risks whether intentional, such as arson, or accidental, environmental, those relating to business continuity, process or threats to the public, occupants and operators, evaluating all of these
- setting objectives, for example life safety, property protection, business protection and continuity, and environmental protection
- an holistic design review to assess the risk scenarios and key objectives that derive from the previous 2 exercises
- holistic acceptance criteria, such as levels of toxic gases and height of smoke layer, among which the use of evaluation tools such as fire and evacuation modelling should be considered
- an holistic fire safety strategy.
A peer review is the point at which an independent assessment will be undertaken, and is also the point where national requirements will be evaluated against the proposals and any discrepancies identified. This gap analysis should be clear and concise, and enable professionals without fire safety expertise to assess whether any such gaps are acceptable.
... fire engineering should be dealt with in the same way as sustainability and environmental aspects are; that is, at the outset of design, and subsequently as an integral part of the whole process
A final strategy should then be established, through which the design can be approved based on both the earlier analysis and peer review, and which ensures that suitable metrics have been followed.
It can be challenging to take an holistic approach to fire engineering in the present climate if the designers and other engineers are reluctant to work closely with you to develop the most efficient and safe building.
This could be for various valid reasons; fire engineering is a relatively new discipline compared with mechanical and structural engineering, for instance.
Fire engineers need to have more influence over the design and the design process, and we need to take on a more proactive approach with concept design. This can be achieved by putting an emphasis on safer practice, on seamless, more efficient design of fire safety measures, on ensuring that fire engineers are one of the first people designers want on their team, and on strategic, methodical development of the discipline through research and better promotion.
These will not make for an easy process, but we must collaborate with other disciplines to ensure that fire engineering is considered at every stage. For instance, we need to evaluate cladding design and the rest of the building in its entirety, and investigate the existing building parameters alongside facade, structural and sustainability engineers to provide a system that works as one to prevent vertical fire spread, as well as fulfilling all the other functions of a facade.
The full facts have not emerged yet, but it is possible that each individual component in last year’s Grenfell Tower fire in London complied with standards and then-current practice. However, they may have together failed to achieve the necessary requirement of preventing vertical fire spread, potentially as a result of a combination of design gaps and flaws in construction.
The facade is only one area where fire engineering can ensure safe design, and others include structural fire engineering, fire suppression, fire detection, smoke management, compartmentation, and safe egress. But holistic fire engineering can only serve the community through improved, safer and more cost-effective designs if it is integrated at the start of that process rather than providing stopgap measures later.
Mark Anderson is Team Leader at Professional Certification Group