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Why installing active fire protection can improve a building’s sustainability

Tom Roche

Tom Roche

Secretary, Business Sprinkler Alliance
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In a post-Covid world, governments are being urged by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to implement deep building renovation and performance standards for newly constructed buildings into pandemic recovery packages.  

While reducing energy demand and carbon emissions through the use of natural construction materials, greater insulation and renewables will be the way forward, the aspect of fire resilience is often overlooked. It should not be. 

Losing the materials and building usability in a fire will result in valuable resources taken to rebuild them. A holistic approach that addresses sustainability and fire resilience will be needed to deliver these outcomes with active fire protection playing a key role in this resilience.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, when adding emissions from the building construction industry on top of operational emissions, the built environment sector accounted for 38% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. Pre-pandemic building emissions from the built environment in 2019 were noted to reach their highest level.

Action is needed if we are to meet the aspiration of net zero carbon by 2050. The drive to preserve resources will mean a building will no longer follow the traditional linear model of ‘take, make, dispose’, but would be circular and built with reused materials and/or more organic (bio) materials. Buildings will also be able to be taken apart and deconstructed. Furthermore, a building will need to be flexible and adaptable to the short term whilst being built for the long term when considering its internal use. They will also need to be smart and connected, using sensors to determine efficiency operations and user experience.

We will need to consider a building more as a system and an asset where the value is in its efficiency, flexibility and reusability. Protecting that reusability will therefore become key to a building’s sustained value. Losing the materials and the building usability in a fire will see it taken out of the cycle – the result will be a valuable resource taken to rebuild them and increasing lifecycle costs as was noted by a study by FM Global. Therefore, a holistic approach that addresses sustainability and fire resilience will be needed to deliver these outcomes. This will mean a shift in regulatory thinking too.

The pursuit of green

For many years now the construction industry has started this journey pursuing sustainable and green construction. This has been supported by government regulations, incentives, certification schemes and the credits within them.

One of the most obvious items across Europe is the drive to use more natural products. For example, the use of timber is considered to be more sustainable for certain buildings than other traditional methods of construction. However, we also know these materials burn. High profile fire events have raised questions around the detailing and resilience of buildings where natural products are used as a structural material. There is a clear need for research in this area but also thinking in terms of what this means for long term sustainability.

Fires in new buildings with high-level ratings in green certification schemes have occurred. Some have been completely destroyed by fire, meaning their potential saving and green credentials are gone. Valuable resources are needed to recreate them, and their function has been interrupted for several months, if not years. Some see this as a signal that fire safety regulations deliver the wrong outcome for sustainability and others that there is a blind spot in certification schemes.

This is neatly illustrated by the Carbon Neutral laboratory in Nottingham, which was constructed using mass timber but destroyed shortly before it was completed in 2014. When it was rebuilt following the fire it was in line with regulations; it followed the original design and there was no increase in fire resilience – no active fire protection. The rebuild was showered with shortlisting for awards relating to its green credentials. Somehow the resources lost in the original fire did not matter or count. The original fire was consigned to history and had no bearing on the claims for the efficiency and carbon neutral credentials.

Active fire protection does not feature in this discussion. Instead, it is assigned to mirroring the state fire regulations in differing countries where the focus is on safety and limiting conflagration. A recent update on a study from 2015 by the Fire Protection Research Foundation summarises this by looking at the challenges that need further research.

Active fire protection

Active protection systems such as sprinklers are part of the building system and add to their overall carbon emissions. However, before dismissing active fire protection because of these emissions their benefits need to be weighed. Studies show their benefits in minimising the impact of fire and emissions. 

A future view of the world wherein protecting the hard-won resources so that they can be used and reused leads to a path where minimising fire incidents will be important. Active protection systems will increasingly make sense for this reason. They will also make sense when thinking of the desire for buildings that can be flexible in use throughout their life. The whole life cost of a building and its value will be tied to both these concepts.

That said active fire protection systems will need to continue to adapt to demonstrate their improving whole life costs and sustainability credentials too. This will require adapting test regimes, increased recycling of water and perhaps new technology to improve their already high effectiveness.

In a world where sustainability is key, a disposable building will no longer be the ‘right thinking’. I would contend that a sprinklered one will be.

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