Nowadays, in a time when we construct a new building almost every day, the world appears to grow a little bit taller. Particularly in large cities, in locations like London, where the architecture is often unbelievably tall. Building tall and safe structures is an art and a science, respecting the architect’s vision whilst guaranteeing safety is the final goal.
However, not every tall building around the world is new and, most of the time, not all of them are as expensive and exclusive as the ones we can see in London. Lots of them, particularly those we can find in the UK, were constructed as affordable housing.
Retrospectively evaluating and changing tall structures could help to avoid tragedies like Grenfell to happen again, even if it just includes changing the procedures and signage.
Let’s have a look at the solutions and policies for fire safety in tall structures.
No building, old or new, can possibly be too big to fail. Policies must be respected because lives are at stake. If anything, architects, contractors and developers should be trying to frequently improve and increase standards.
Requirement B4(1) of the Building Regulations points out that, “The external walls of the building should sufficiently resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, taking into account the height, position and use of the building”.
This requirement applies to any building with a floor above the height of 18 metres.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, external siding has come under close examination. The sheer inflammability of the siding core set up at Grenfell triggered the quick burning of the building in all directions, and did not enable firefighters to put out the flames. The siding did not resist the spread of fire. The plastic lining of the siding was extremely inflammable.
The compartment is not only relevant to indoor spaces. Cavities between each part of the siding and the structure itself, lined with non-combustible materials, can successfully change every panel into an isolated “cell”. In addition, siding has to resist to:
- Inner flames falling outside through windows
- Fire from structures nearby
The University of Melbourne’s Innovative Fire Engineering Group created a new fire safe material, which could be the future non-combustible siding core. It is produced with ceramics suspended in plastic, which greatly extends its heat resistance.
How can we avoid high-rise fires
Fire prevention and protection in high-rise structures is quite similar to any other building. With progress in siding policies, building owners should take the time to assess important areas for improvement and evaluate their overall fire safety, being a fire risk assessment performed by a professional the very first step that should be taken.
Education, awareness and vigilance
It is the responsibility of everybody to report risk and danger - a buzzing electrical socket, chemical leaks, incorrectly stored paper – anything that could be the cause of a fire. Education and training are important elements, giving residents the knowledge they need to have in case of fires is essential.
How well do people know the steps to follow in case of a fire? Do they know what to do and where to go? Is the signage to a protected exit clear enough? Even small modifications and slight reminders to visual signals can make a big difference.
Passive and active fire protection
Sprinklers should be installed in every large structure as part of their active fire protection. Sensors and alarms have to be set up as standard equipment. Detecting fire at a good moment is the only way to know how to respond. Through the use of active fire protection, a response can be automated – extremely improving the speed of response. For instance, in case of a fire in a specific place, sprinklers could be activated in the location immediately.
Non-combustible materials, fire curtains, fire doors and compartmentalised structure design are good examples of passive fire protection. Fire doors, produced with fire-resistant materials, act as self-closing seals.