BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Designing buildings to ensure fire safety

Designing buildings to ensure fire safety means looking beyond the minimum regulatory requirements and taking a risk-based approach

Author: Gary Howe

01 November 2019

Only life safety objectives are mandated in the UK Building Regulations, and these concentrate on providing early warning of fire to enable prompt escape from the building. But even though property protection is not mandated it is of concern to insurers, who have a financial interest in minimising losses.

Property protection can be achieved by:

  • installing fire control, suppression or extinguishing systems
  • providing non-combustible compartmentation to confine or limit fire spread in a building
  • building with materials that incorporate non-combustible construction, which will not add to the fire load and remain structurally sound after a fire.

The Building Regulations set no requirements for operational continuity either, but this is also of interest to insurers because commercial property policies cover material damage and business interruption.

Thinking beyond the minimum

Insurers are commonly told that a proposed project complies with the Building Regulations, and that the developers have no intention of fitting sprinklers because they have been advised by consulting engineers that these are not necessary to meet the minimum regulatory requirements. Sprinklers are therefore seen as burdensome and expensive, and the implications of omitting them from a building's design are not appreciated, even though this can potentially affect insurers' ability to underwrite the risk.

Developers can often state that they believe fire safety provisions are adequate, because automatic fire alarms or compartmentation have been provided or the local fire and rescue service is located just a few minutes away.

This may offer a false sense of security, however, and although automatic alarms are an essential part of any fire engineering design they are there predominantly to ensure life safety and enable escape. They can only tell you a fire has occurred and start the evacuation procedure, but they cannot suppress or control the blaze. Likewise, the proximity of a fire station may seem advantageous, but there is no guarantee that firefighters will venture into a building to tackle a blaze if there are no lives at stake.

Alongside this, the impact of business interruption after a fire is often vastly underestimated; typically it can take 18 to 24 months before a workplace is fully up and running again. This, and the related effect on supply chains, continue to top the list of major concerns for businesses. With so many companies interconnected on a global scale, a fire in one part of the world can have far-reaching repercussions.

Sprinkler protection is a proven means of mitigating this risk of business interruption. With a history of a century or more, such systems control fires with typically four or fewer sprinkler heads and can dramatically reduce interruption, in some cases to a matter of a few days.

The message from insurers is certainly not limited to demanding sprinklers be installed; for example, these will not solve the issue of combustible cladding on residential properties. The rationale for sprinklers has to be made on a case-by-case basis according to the risk and the sums insured, for example.

"Sprinklers can be seen as burdensome and expensive and the implications of omitting them are not appreciated though this may affect insurability"

However, with the potential for construction materials to be combustible, the need to deal with innovative building design, and increasing use of modern methods of construction, promoting sprinklers is still a reasonable response.

Measuring risk

Property insurers can give an alternative holistic view of risk, beyond a simple focus on achieving the minimum life safety objectives of the Building Regulations. The Zurich Risk Advisor (ZRA) digital platform , for example, offers users self-service risk engineering tools.

ZRA supports risk management initiatives and makes risk assessment easier to understand, providing insights and recommendations so that users can carry out self-assessments and mitigate risks. The tool also allows them to develop scenarios that help them see how the implementation of risk-reduction and improvement measures will affect the overall risk and support business continuity objectives.

Greater input from commercial property insurers at the building design stage will help to create a resilient built environment. It is important that property protection and business continuity is considered integral to new building design, to inform the work of consulting fire engineers and architectural design teams. This in turn will enable appropriate fire safety measures to be incorporated into the building design. It is wise to involve the insurer at the earliest possible stage of design, as most insurers have specialist risk, construction and fire protection engineers who can advise on the acceptability of the proposed design for policy purposes.

Gary Strong RICS global building standards director comments: 'RICS supports a risk-based approach rather than one that is purely based on height of a building. We also support the installation of automatic fire sprinkler systems in all but low-risk buildings, and will continue to lobby for changes to the building regulations in many countries.'

Gary Howe is a senior fire protection engineer at Zurich Risk Engineering gary.howe@ukzurich.com

Related competencies include: Design and specification, Fire safety

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