Up until 2002, buildings were generally built prescriptively, with life safety often achieved using materials and products that held up well in fire situations, such as bricks and mortar.
Post-2000, we saw the emergence of ‘fire engineering’ as a discipline; a necessary change to support the construction of buildings that any modern society needs. This change meant buildings could be constructed and engineered in many different ways, so long as the ‘life safety ambition’ was preserved. You could summarise it as essentially ‘Evacuation before collapse.’
Think about what that means. It took us from a place where life safety would be assured via good property protection, to a situation where life safety could be assured by other measures. It’s possible now to use building materials that perform less well in fire, on the proviso that travel distances are adequate and notification systems good enough so that people of all physical abilities can get out in time.
A not atypical construction method is the use of structural insulated panels, which in their rawest forms can consist of 10 inches of polystyrene, with timber boarding either side and fire protection afforded by layers of plasterboard. That’s very different to a brick wall.
Think like a business In terms of life safety, buildings are designed to, and do, perform very well, regardless of what they’re made from, yet we must also remember that schools are in the business of providing education. If you specify a building simply in terms of form and function, you may well get one which is a beautiful, fantastic learning environment – but some construction materials and methods will be better than others.
The government attempted to encourage the provision of sprinkler systems in schools, but being non-mandated, it has largely failed to gain traction and even then needs careful consideration against the building methods chosen.
Right now, if you don’t ask for anything else beyond standard building regulations, your building will be ‘safe’, but it might not be as ‘resilient’ as it could be. The fire and rescue services have no responsibility whatsoever for the protection of property, so it’s entirely down to individual businesses and owners to introduce measures protecting their business.
Current regulations also don’t take account of all the challenges we see. For example, fire ingress – a fire starting outside the building – isn’t currently addressed within our building regulations. At all. In school environments, arson can be a very real threat. The lighting, deliberately or accidentally, of wheelie bins at the curtilage is a significant fire challenge for any building, even ones fitted with sprinkler systems.
School leaders ultimately need to think longer term. Consider how likely it is that your building will survive an adverse event such as fire, if it can be kept operating, and if there’s any way to avoid disrupting the education of those pupils who will require it.
Dr Jim Glockling is technical director of the Fire Protection Association