Renovation
Fire safety

Fire resilience – One more reason to ride the renovation wave

Deborah 'Debbie' Kelly Spillane
Deborah Kelly Spillane
12 July 2021

Renovation is hitting the headlines once again - but one compelling benefit is too important to be overlooked – the unique opportunity to upgrade the fire safety of buildings all over the world.

Steel frame construction, building type

The renovation wave is rippling steadily all over the world, supported avidly in Europe by the EU with an aim to upgrade existing buildings. The EU strategy strives to double the annual energy renovation rates over the next 10 years[1]. In addition to reducing emissions, these renovations will enhance the quality of life for those living in and using the buildings, and create new jobs in the construction sector. Clever renovations can also improve the fire resilience of buildings – and considering that the frequency of façade fires in large buildings worldwide has multiplied by seven times over the last 30 years[2], it’s certainly a smart investment for our safety.

Sparking a need for more attention

Did you know that fires today develop more than six times faster than in the 1950s[3]?  There is a common misconception that the buildings we live in today are safer than ever, and that fire safety is no longer an issue – but this could not be further from the truth. A greater use of synthetic materials in both construction and furnishing means that a typical modern room can take less than five minutes to move from ignition until “flashover” engulfs the room in fire – and this is compared to 29 minutes for a typical room the mid-20th century[4].

Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising that the last 10 years have seen an alarming rise in fires within buildings where the exterior wall systems and façade materials actually contributed to the fire rather than protecting the people within. Some, like the Grenfell fire, were high-profile events that devasted entire communities. Smaller  residential fires, although common, are not widely communicated about. In the U.S. alone, almost 1,000 people tragically lost their lives to these events during the first four months of 2021. 

In many countries, the construction industry’s focus on energy-efficiency and decarbonisation results in fire safety regulations receiving less attention. But as people continue to move to densely populated cities every year, the need for better fire safety regulations to secure safe and resilient buildings increases.

Improving energy efficiency – without forgetting fire safety

In attempt to combat climate change, the Paris Agreement was decided upon at COP 21 in December 2015. It is an international treaty with a goal to limit global warming to below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels[5]. Reaching the Paris Agreement climate goals calls for a massive change and will require a large upscale of investment in renovation of the existing building stock[6]. This transformation will be a huge challenge, involving the increased use of energy efficiency solutions and installation of more renewable energy – but it must be done without compromising the fire safety of our buildings. 

The route to a low-carbon future can be achieved by:

  1. using electricity instead of higher-emissions fossil fuels,
  2. opting for green energy, in other words, choosing renewable energy technologies such as solar energy, wind power, geothermal energy, biomass and hydroelectric power,
  3. and maybe most importantly, using less energy in the first place.

Decarbonisation efforts often lead to the larger electrification of buildings, which in turn causes the inherent fire risk in buildings to rise. Last year, the Forum for European Electrical Domestic Safety[7] estimated that 280,000 fires of electrical origin still occur every year throughout the EU, causing an annual average of 1,000 fatalities and property damage of 6.25 billion euro. In fact, the share of electrical fires in domestic settings grew by 5-10 percent in the EU over the last ten years[8]. The increase in building fire events over the last decade shows that fire safety requirements and standards are lagging behind new technologies, materials and innovative construction and design, possibly putting people at risk. 

Some of the factors that contribute to the risk of fire in buildings include;

  • older electrical installations, which can be dangerous if not maintained properly, and the average age of residential electrical installations in Europe is rising,
  • and the fact that homes are now hosting new technologies, materials and systems, such as solar panels.

So as the share of renewables and the use of other innovative energy-efficient solutions increases in buildings, it is vital that the increased fire-risk is assessed and a high level of fire safety is maintained. Improving a buildings energy performance can increase the fire load of the building and change the way the building responds to a fire, unless non-combustible materials are used. The same considerations need to be made when installing renewable energy technologies on the building which can change the fire behaviour of the roof. 

Improving fire safety with recovery funds

Across the globe, the buildings we live in represent one of our biggest assets, and investment in this area is a major opportunity to improve the safety and quality of life for everyone. Currently, the world’s building stock is worth around €150 trillion! Although there has been a drive to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, building codes have not kept up with the inherent risks in today’s buildings and the ways in which energy renovations can impact fire performance. With Europe looking towards a Renovation Wave as part of the post-pandemic recovery plan, now is the perfect opportunity to review the fire safety regulations and ensure that codes reflect the expected safety level going forward. Failing to factor fire risk into buildings design and renovation projects can actually nullify the benefits of energy efficiency and sustainability measures[9].

While riding the renovation wave, it’s vital to ensure that the buildings we design and the construction materials we choose improve fire safety. That way, we can protect one of the world’s most valuable assets while providing safer living conditions for everyone.  

Go beneath the surface

Sources:

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/energy/topics/energy-efficiency/energy-efficient-buildings/renovation-wave_en

[2] ROCKWOOL Group, Sustainability Report 2019, p. 20. “Flammability and Multi-Objective Performance of Building Façades: Towards Optimum Design,” Matthew Bonner and Guillermo Rein, International Journal of High-Rise Buildings, December 2018, Vol 7, No 4, 363-374.

[3] Underwriters Laboratory, “Analysis of changing residential fire dynamics and its implications on firefighter operational timeframes” (2014), p. 16.

[4] Underwriters Laboratory, “Analysis of changing residential fire dynamics and its implications on firefighter operational timeframes” (2014), p. 16.

[5] https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

[6] IEA Sustainable Buildings 2013

[7] https://copperalliance.eu/new-white-paper-residential-electrical-safety-ensure-progress/ and Report: how to ensure residential electrical safety? - EuropeOn (europe-on.org)

[8] Know your fire safety facts (firesafeeurope.eu)

[9] Sustainability-FSEU-Position-Paper-2020-FINAL.pdf (firesafeeurope.eu)