Fire Safety

(Wild)fire Resistant Construction

I predict that construction in wildfire prone areas will be required to resist the level of risk required by the potential fire. The change will be driven by codes, zoning, insurance and other financial institutions, and by a changing perception in the public and in government about who bears the risk of building in a hazardous area. 

I thought a lot about this when I was involved in the autoclaved aerated concrete business. Because the masonry product has outstanding fire resistance, I proposed to promote it for construction at the urban/wildland interface and for vacation homes and other structures in forests and wildlands.  With fire shutters for windows, fire resistant eaves and roofing, and a few other modifications to standard building techniques, one could build a structure resistant to almost any wide fire.

I am reminded of this by a recently released research report that says we have a wildfire "problem that will make society increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic losses unless it changes its fundamental approach from fighting fire to coexisting with fire as a natural process."

A press release from the University of California says, in part (emphasis added)
The paper, “Learning to Coexist with Wildfire,” published in the Nov. 6 issue of the journal Nature, examines research findings from three continents and from both the natural and social sciences.

“We don’t try to ‘fight’ earthquakes — we anticipate them in the way we plan communities, build buildings and prepare for emergencies. We don’t think that way about fire, but our review indicates that we should,” said lead author Max Moritz, Cooperative Extension specialist in fire at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. “Human losses will only be mitigated when land-use planning takes fire hazards into account in the same manner as other natural hazards, like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.”
If humans choose to live in fire-prone regions, fire must be managed on par with other naturally occurring hazards, the authors argue, and research must seek to understand what factors and outcomes humans can and cannot affect.
The authors recommend prioritizing location-specific approaches to improve development and safety in fire-prone areas, including:
  • Adopting new land-use regulations and zoning guidelines that restrict development in the most fire-prone areas;
  • Updating building codes, such as requiring fire-resistant construction to match local hazard levels and encouraging retrofits to existing ignition-prone homes;
  • Implementing locally appropriate vegetation management strategies around structures and neighborhoods;
  • Evaluating evacuation planning and warning systems, including understanding situations in which mandatory evacuations are or are not effective;
  • Developing household and community plans for how to survive stay-and-defend situations; and
  • Developing better maps of fire hazards, ecosystem services and climate change effects to assess trade-offs between development and hazard.
The authors underscore that wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems and can have a positive long-term influence on the landscape, despite people labeling them as “disasters.” They can stimulate vegetation regeneration, promote a diversity of vegetation types, provide habitat for many species and sustain other ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling.
If the report is heeded, there will be plenty of business opportunities for companies with fire resistant products for building envelopes.   Stay tuned.


Assuring Life Safety is Maintained by Owner

Building Product Manufacturers, contractors, and design professionals are generally well informed about life-safety. But what can a manufacturer do to help a building owner or manager maintain the safety of a building and its occupants?

I confronted this question while consulting to a company launching a new type of ceiling panel. The ceiling panels allow fire sprinklers to be used in a non-conventional manner. Based on extensive testing, the ceiling and sprinkler combination and has approvals and listings from UL, FM, IAPMO-UES, ICC-ES, and CertMark.The approvals and listings are not valid, however, if the approved panels are replaced with non-approved products.

At the conclusion of a construction project, the contractor delivers to the owner boxes of as-built drawings, product data sheets, and operation and maintenance instructions. These are important reference documents, but are only helpful if someone can interpret the information. Further, the submittals may contain only a cut-sheet and not a copy of the product's approvals and listings. When the typical tenant or facility manager decides to redecorate and replace the ceiling panels, is he or she is likely to not look for the old submittals?

I advised my client that it has an obligation to the future users of the building. I compared its situation to an automobile manufacturer. Not only does the automaker put safety instructions in the owners manual, they put critical warnings on the dashboard or visor where drivers and passengers are likely to notice them. My client now provides customers with a durable placard and recommends that it be installed next to the fire control panel or another conspicuous location. The placard warns future generations that replacement panels must be in kind unless otherwise approved by a building safety authority.

As a nice side benefit, the placard also contains the manufacturer's name and contact information and may lead to orders for replacement panels.

The automaker's warning labels are required by law. Similarly, building codes require fire-rated doors to be labeled. My client was not compelled by code to offer the signage, but was motivated by a higher standard: protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.

Please do not wait for the codes to issue mandates. Review your products and ask yourself, "What can I do to help assure building owners can use my product safely throughout the life of the building?"

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Visit an Architecture School to See Future

Central China TV Headquarters, Beijing 2009
When I attended architectural school in the 1970's, one of the graduate level studios (not mine) explored the concept of linking highrise towers with horizontal connections. So it did not surprise me when, about 30 years later, buildings utilizing such concepts were actually constructed; the students had become principals in major design firms.

I am reminded of this by a visit to Southern California Institute of Architecture's presentation of their graduate students thesis projects.

Architectural schools represent a broad range of pedagogical approaches and philosophical underpinnings. Sci-Arc's amuses me; many of the projects on display appear to treat gravity as an optional design consideration. But their creative investigation of architectural forms challenges existing conventions, and suggest architectural trends that will impact the future of building materials. Take a look:
Chia-Ching Lang
Dave Bantz
Han-Yin Hsu
Qing Cao
Sheng-Ping Lin
Experiment from robotics lab.
You won't have to wait to wait 30 years until today's students become principals. In a few months, these new graduates will find jobs and begin influencing what materials are used in buildings currently being designed. Your ability to communicate with them and understand their architectural influences may be critical to your marketing success. For while it may be the principals from my graduating class that make the final call, these youngsters know far more about the realities of computer-aided design than the old geezers ever will.

Now, if only they would understand gravity...

...and if you think I am joking about gravity, take a look at how the emergency exit doors at the school are blocked. This is the second time this year I have visited the campus, and on both occasions the doors were blocked.

This suggests a second reason for you to visit the schools of architecture. The faculty is probably not teaching students about your products and technology. This creates an opportunity for you to cultivate relations with these future principals.

Sci-Arc photos by Vladimir Paperny.

Triangle Fire Legacy

March 25, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City that killed 146 workers. This tragic event focused attention on fire safety in construction, and accelerated the acceptance of tighter building codes and life-safety regulations.

The Fire illustrates how disasters are frequently the progenitor of new construction technologies. Reforms sparked by the incident led to mandatory usage of many building products we now take for granted, including:
  • Panic bars on exit doors.
  • Automatic fire sprinklers.
  • Fire alarm systems.
  • Fire-resistant glass at egress paths.
This cause and effect relationship continues: Environmental disasters spawn sustainable construction. Hurricanes bring demands for airborne missile testing of wall systems. And floods inundate us with innovation.

The only way to redeem a tragedy is to learn from it.

Fire Safety is now a Green Issue

My associate, Aaron Chusid, is fond of saying: "The green building movement is over; it won. We don't talk about a 'fire-safe building movement' anymore because fire-resistive design has become a regular part of construction. We have to start discussing sustainable design in the same way."

Aaron's insights may be a bit premature, because a new report by the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) makes it clear that fire safety is also a green building issue.

Their report, titled Fire Safety and Green Buildings - Bridging the Gap is a free download. I recommend it as required reading for all building product marketing executives during their midwinter break. It is chock-full of issues and challenges to inspire fresh marketing strategies for the new year.

It points out that a single-attribute approach to sustainable product selection can produce unintended fire hazards. For example:
  • Engineered wood systems may make efficient use of forest resources, but they may not provide the same fire safety.
  • Photovoltaic panels on a roof provide renewable energy, but they can be a hazard to fire fighters.
  • Some insulations with excellent thermal resistance also generate smoke that  hinders fire fighting.
  • Vegetative roofs have lots of environmental advantages, but shouldn't prevent fire department access.
Reading this report may help you identify threats or opportunities in the changing marketplace. One of Chusid Associates' clients, for example, is launching a new marketing initiative stimulated by the report. Their door opener is that the NASFM has raised concerns about the fire safety of products in its niche. This prepares the way for demonstrating that the firm has already solved the problem, allowing its customers to be both green and fire safe.