Renovation
Energy Efficiency
Fire safety

Renovation Wave – A unique opportunity to make our buildings safer

Susanne Dyrbøl
Susanne Dyrbøl

The renovation wave presents a once in a decade opportunity to improve fire safety in the world’s buildings. Here is why it’s a smart investment for the future.

fireman, fire brigade, fire, fight a fire, smoke, photo, germany

Over the last decade, there has been an alarming rise in fires within buildings where exterior wall systems and façade materials contributed to the fire rather than protecting people. In many countries, the current fire safety regulations are lagging behind energy-efficiency and decarbonisation efforts in the building sector. As more and more people move to densely populated cities every year, there is an increasing need to provide safe and resilient buildings for everyone and for all purposes.   

The increased focus on decarbonising buildings’ energy consumption is likely to lead to the larger electrification of buildings. This in turn increases the inherent fire risk in buildingsLast year, the Forum for European Electrical Domestic Safety1 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. The risk of fire in the built environment is constantly changing. Some of contributing factors include; 

  • Older electrical installations can be dangerous, if not maintained properly, and the average age of residential electrical installations in Europe is rising. 
  • Homes are now hosting new technologies, materials and systems, such as solar panels and electric vehicles. 
  • People are living in their homes for longer. 

There is a common misconception that the buildings we live in today are safer than ever before, and that we no longer need to pay attention to fire safety. Building fires still present a major risk to urban populations, with the share of electrical fires in domestic fires growing by 5-10 percent in the EU within the last ten years1. When increasing the share of renewables or other innovative energy-efficient solutions in buildings, we need to assess the increased fire-risk and ensure a high-level of fire safety is being maintained.   

In many countries, the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is set to focus on renovation. This provides a unique opportunity to address current deficiencies in relation to fire safety and fire resilience. Fires in buildings have a dramatic impact on our society, the environment and the economy. 

 

Building fires – A constant concern 

Records show that between 2010 and 2021, there was a rapid rise in major building fires spread in some way via the façade of buildings. Such events devastate communities, often taking years to recover. While it is common to hear about high-profile incidents like the Grenfell fire, residential fires remain common. In the U.S. alone, almost 1,000 people lost their lives to these events during the first four months of 2021.  

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.  

Facts about building fires2

  • In most advanced countries, the financial effects of fires equate to one percent of the total GDP, leading to major financial losses.  
  • Building fires adversely affect air quality and release GHG into the environment, contributing to global warming and climate catastrophes.  
  • Unburned particles arising from building fires are equal to the total CO2 emissions generated by commercial transport around the world.  
  • Fires and the products used to extinguish them leave significant amounts of contamination behind in the form of toxins and carcinogens.

Improving fire safety with recovery funds 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout present a unique opportunity to improve the world’s building stocks beyond energy efficiency. Across the globe, the buildings we live in represent one of the biggest assets, and investment in this area is a major opportunity to improve the safety and quality of life for the occupants and for communities at large. Currently, the world’s building stock is worth around €150 trillion.  

With the recovery focusing on renovating the world’s building stock, improved fire safety must be included in the priority. Failing to factor fire risk into buildings design and renovation projects can nullify the benefits of energy efficiency and sustainability measures3.    

Forgetting fire safety – A costly mistake 

The Grenfell fire is still fresh in the minds of those impacted and the public at large. In February this year, the UK government set out a £5 billion package4 aimed at remediating fire safety in high-rise buildings.  While the tragedy did spark initial action, many believe that the latest interventions by the UK Government simply do not provide enough impetus to deal with the scale of the actual problem. 

The package by the UK Government hopes to bring an end to unsafe cladding with multi-billion pound intervention by: 

  • Providing £3.5 billion to replace unsafe cladding for leaseholders in buildings 18 meters and over. 
  • Addressing safety issues in high-risk residential buildings, of which there are more than 2,000 in the UK alone.  
  • Improving the living conditions of more than 1.5 million residents who live in buildings with similar cladding as Grenfell. Currently, these people cannot sell their apartments without paying for expensive renovations.  
  • Urgently review buildings across the country that used combustible cladding and insulation  during the construction process, including schools, homes, and hospitals.  

The Grenfell fire aftermath clearly highlights the costs associated with not having a sufficiently strong regulatory system on fire safety in place as part of the renovation strategy. 

Fire safety in high-risk and high-rise buildings  

The EU Green Deal and Renovation Wave requires a comprehensive review of all energy legislation in the EU with an aim to double the renovation rate and improve the renovation depth. However, this should also be used as an opportunity to include considerations about fire safety and ways to improve the overall resilience of the building stock across the union. Today, fire safety legislation differs greatly between the EU Member States.  

Disparity in fire safety regulations creates unequal levels of protection for EU citizens. Public buildings like schools, hospitals, and social housing are high-risk buildings, where people – children, the sick or elderly – have limited capabilities for self-evacuation in the case of fire. In such cases, firefighting is more time consuming and complex.  

 The renovation of high-risk public buildings should be exemplary both in term of energy-efficiency and safety. When reviewing the energy legislation, it is vital to ensure that increased energy-efficiency does not threaten the building’s fire performance or fire resilience. Toxic smoke and the spread of fire must be considered as well, as many people die from smoke inhalation rather than the burning itself.  

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 needs to be made when installing renewable energy technologies on the building which can change the fire behaviour of the roof.  

The transformation of the building stock to be highly energy efficient and decarbonised by 2050 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 the building stock.  

The increase in building fire events over the last decade indicates that fire safety requirements and standards are lagging behind new technologies, materials and innovative construction and design, possibly putting residents and families at risk.  

With renovation being a priority of the recovery package, it is time to include improved fire safety and fire resilience as part of the legislative review. By ensuring we have the necessary legislation in place and enforcing building codes that increase fire safety, we can protect one of the world’s most valuable assets while providing safer living conditions to the world’s population.   

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

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

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

[4] Government to bring an end to unsafe cladding with multi-billion pound intervention - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

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