Raging inferno – A look at fire prevention in commercial buildings

As recent disasters have shown, fire safety – and innovation – must be top-of-mind considerations in building design
Story by: David Renwick
When it comes to fire safety, basic oversights atmosphere, atmosphere of earth, bonfire, explosive material, fire, flame, geological phenomenon, heat, phenomenon, sky, smoke, wildfire, black, orange
When it comes to fire safety, basic oversights can have disastrous consequences

In the early hours of Wednesday morning on June 14, 2017, a fire started in London’s Grenfell Tower. It quickly engulfed the building, trapping dozens of residents and forcing others through thick smoke as they tried to escape.

By June 15, after a terrifying battle with the blaze, firefighters finally brought the fire under control. Over 70 people died, and 70 more were injured.

It often takes a disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire to kickstart the conversation around prevention and safety. Think back to 2014, when the disappearance of Flight MH370 led to a renewed discussion around how we track commercial airline flights. Or, 2001, when the World Trade Centre attacks brought home the importance of building exit and entry pathways.

In this article, we’ll look at fire prevention in modern commercial buildings – the cutting edge, and the likely future.

Understanding commercial fire safety requirements

For any commercial building owner in New Zealand, events like the Grenfell Tower fire are certain to set off alarm bells.

At the most basic level, fire protection is broken down into two main areas – how designers approach fire prevention and management, and how building owners then manage risk day-to-day.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) notes some of the main challenges facing designers of tall buildings – especially with buildings climbing ever-higher, year after year.

The need for safe escape routes for occupantsClear entry and ascension points for emergency servicesThe timeframes for the above must ‘dominate’ fire safety conversations

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When it comes to fire safety, basic oversights atmosphere, atmosphere of earth, bonfire, explosive material, fire, flame, geological phenomenon, heat, phenomenon, sky, smoke, wildfire, black, orange
When it comes to fire safety, basic oversights can have disastrous consequences

MBIE explains that designers should consider these tall building-specific challenges and put solutions in place that are both effective and reliable.

“Recent overseas tall building fires have highlighted the vulnerability of rapid external fire spread resulting from poor choices of external cladding.”

At a more micro level, building owners should also work closely with tenants to manage fire safety, scheduling drills and keeping abreast of fire safety regulations.

The cutting edge of fire safety

When looking for an example of modern fire suppression done correctly, few buildings can match One World Trade Center. Following the 9/11 terror attacks, when discussions around the possible replacement structure began, it was obvious that fire safety would be key to the design.

In an interview with Architectural Digest (AD), Eduardo del Valle, a design consultant for the Port Authority, explained that the tower has:

State-of-the-art fire-suppression systemsProtected elevators (70 in total)A dedicated stairway for emergency services personnelA waterproof and fireproof emergency services elevatorWater tanks for fire suppression with double the capacity listed in the New York building code

Other safety measures include a blast-resistant base and protections against high winds and earthquakes.

“I can tell you that it may not be the tallest building in the world, but it is certainly the safest,” Eduardo said.

When it comes to fire safety, basic oversights atmosphere, atmosphere of earth, bonfire, explosive material, fire, flame, geological phenomenon, heat, phenomenon, sky, smoke, wildfire, black, orange
When it comes to fire safety, basic oversights can have disastrous consequences

Where is the industry headed?

With One World Trade Center a (literally) gleaming example of modern fire safety done right, where does the industry go from here? Certainly, there must be room for further improvement?

One of the biggest innovations that’s continually being iterated upon is compartmentalisation. Similar to how a submarine has different pressurised compartments able to be sealed off in the event of a breach - to prevent sinking the entire vessel - so to do buildings have different ‘break floors’ or ‘plant floors’ and fire doors.

The Shard in London uses so-called ‘plant floors’ at different heights throughout the tower. The ideas is that were a fire to break out, it wouldn’t be able to advance higher or lower than the ‘plant floor’.

Fire doors, meanwhile, can prove invaluable in stopping the spread of apartment fires (These are already a regulatory requirement in NZ). The idea here is that each apartment is considered a separate ‘compartment’, which is isolated from the others adjacent to it. When a fire starts in one, use of a fire door and proper compartmentalisation should prevent the fire spreading.

However, fire safety needs to be a part of the design conversation from the outset – for new buildings and renovations alike. As the Grenfell disaster showed, the compartmentalisation failed and a small fire in one apartment was able to engulf the entire structure. The potential cause here? Faults in the external cladding – added after the construction of the tower.

Globally, with new buildings climbing higher and higher, and renovations to existing buildings proceeding at a rapid clip, fire safety will have to remain a principle concern.

To read more commercial design articles and see the latest projects, check out the Commercial Design page here.

Jan 11, 2018

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