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How smart building tech can help with occupant safety

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The Government’s draft Building Safety Bill aims to deliver a better, safer future for buildings and those who occupy them. Dave Watkins, director at Abtec Building Technologies, explains the role that smart building tech can play in occupant safety.

Building safety, and buildings which fail to keep occupants safe, continue to grab headlines as do the legislative changes which aim to make way for a safer future.

In her report in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Dame Judith Hackitt recognised that there needed to be a complete culture change within the construction sector in order to address quality and safety issues throughout the design, construction and occupancy phases of a building. Many of the recommendations Dame Hackitt made for delivering a more robust building regulatory system were included in the draft Building Safety Bill launched this summer.

To quote the Rt Hon. Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, from the Bill’s introduction, “The Bill will introduce a new era of accountability, making it clear where the responsibility for managing safety risks lies throughout the design, construction and occupation of buildings in scope. There will be tougher sanctions for those that fail to meet their obligations.”

Building a safer future

The changes will have an impact on almost everybody in the supply chain. And the overriding message is that in order to make buildings safer for the people who live and work in them, we must embrace a culture of accountability and continuous improvement. While the full implementation of the legislation is a few years off, there are steps which construction firms and building operators can take now to improve building safety.

In light of these changes, there has been renewed emphasis on the performance of building management systems, including emergency lighting, which is an important part of the system to evacuate. Those in positions of accountability, particularly those responsible once the property is occupied, must deliver a safe passage for occupants out of the building by ensuring, and more crucially signifying, a clear escape route. Therefore, they must take a good look at their existing system and ask themselves whether it is truly fit for purpose, particularly in commercial and public buildings.

Emergency lighting is about more than the luminaires. Quite simply, building managers and operators must be sure they can control, monitor and test their emergency lighting systems with ease and confidence.

In the UK there are very clear regulations concerning the provision and testing of emergency lighting systems. Lighting that illuminates emergency routes and exits must be provided in all non-single-user public and private buildings, with a full discharge procedure to be carried out once a year – and more basic functional tests to be undertaken at least once per month.

Yet, despite the transparency of current legislation and supporting industry standards, such as BS EN 50172:2004/BS 5266-1:2016, it is widely known that regular testing of systems is sporadic at best. As a result, too many buildings remain ill-equipped with outdated systems and testing practices. This means they cannot be relied upon in the event of an incident, and safety is put at risk.

A system that is robust and fully compliant is essential. But so too is a configuration that allows end-users to make regular checks and ensure that the system remains ‘fit for purpose’. Increasingly, the view is that this can only be achieved by having a unified network infrastructure that allows all devices to be monitored continuously, and any potential failures to be reported at the earliest possible opportunity.

Open protocol approach

It is for precisely these reasons that the international vendor-neutral KNX protocol has become so integral to many major construction projects. Designed for a wide variety of commercial and domestic building automation applications, KNX allows systems including lighting, HVAC, security, AV and displays to be controlled and managed using the same open standard communications protocol.

Technology manufacturers across the spectrum have adopted KNX since it began to become more widespread in the late 1990s. At a time when even major names in the lighting world are withdrawing support for their proprietary systems, the case for an open, future-proofed system, such as KNX, has never been stronger.

A consistent baseline of capabilities means that KNX can bring a welcome new level of reassurance to a project. Moreover, for lighting specifically, it can provide users with greater flexibility and control over their emergency lighting systems – both viewed individually and within the context of overall building safety.

For instance, individual groups can be monitored and controlled via the DALI (Digital Addressable Lighting Interface), whilst a KNX/IP interface can be used to allow lighting systems to be connected across multiple buildings or floors offering the benefits of adapting to a converged network topology. This gives IP clusters of control and allows expansion of the system through the building or multiple sites.

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