Fire safety design
Buildings need to be designed to offer an acceptable level of fire safety and minimise the risks from heat and smoke. The primary objective is to reduce to within acceptable limits the potential for death or injury to the occupants of a building and others who may become involved, such as the fire and rescue service, as well as to protect contents and ensure that as much as possible of a building can continue to function after a fire and that it can be repaired. The risk to adjoining properties also needs to be considered, as well as possible environmental pollution.
The fire safety of the fabric materials is often expressed in terms of its ignitability or combustibility, with particular regard to the structural elements which must remain in place for stability. The internal finishes may offer a fuel source and need to be carefully specified, and the materials of the building’s contents also provide varying fire risks, such as textiles, furniture, plastics, and so on.
Fire properties are also influenced by the materials behind the surface finish. This was the case in the fire at Kings Cross Station in 1987, with multiple coats of paint leading to the spread and severity of the fire.
The main design possibilities for fire safety are:
- Prevention: Controlling ignition and fuel sources so that fires do not start.
- Communications: If ignition occurs, ensuring occupants are informed and any active fire systems are triggered.
- Escape: Ensuring that occupants of buildings and surrounding areas are able to move to places of safety.
- Containment: Fire should be contained to the smallest possible area, limiting the amount of property likely to be damaged and the threat to life safety.
- Extinguishment: Ensuring that fire can be extinguished quickly and with minimum consequential damage.
The three components that are required for a fire to start are; an ignition source, fuel and a supply of oxygen. Since it is difficult to exclude oxygen from a building, fire prevention tends to concentrate on the other two components.
 Ignition prevention
- Design out ignition sources.
- Enable buildings to be managed in such a way that the risk of ignition is eliminated.
There are a number of possible causes of ignition.
 Natural phenomena
Lightning damages buildings as an electrical current passes through building materials or along crevices between them, and energy is dissipated with heat reacting with the water content of building materials to produce very hot gases.
Buildings most at risk are those at high altitudes, on hilltops or hillsides, in isolated positions and tall towers and chimneys. Such structures should be provided with a lightning-conductor system to dissipate the electrical shock directly to the ground.
 Human carelessness
Human carelessness is the most common cause of ignition and the most difficult to design against. Fires may be started by smoking, matches, cookers and other appliances. Deliberate acts of arson are also very difficult to design out.
 Technological failure
In the short term, services and installations should be correctly designed, specified, constructed, checked and commissioned. In the long term, checking and replacement cycles should be in place so that correct operation can be maintained.
 Fuel limitation
Limiting the amount of fuel available will help to reduce risk in two ways:
- Fire load: By controlling the amount of material which will burn and release heat to feed the growth of a fire.
- Smoke load: It will also reduce the amount of smoke which can be produced.
Once a fire is detected (either by occupants or by automatic means) it is necessary to communicate the location of the fire to (other) occupants and to a control and response centre such as the fire and rescue service.
This will allow an assessment of the correct response to be undertaken, and if necessary, alarms to be sounded, a controlled evacuation, triggering of smoke control systems or sprinklers and so on.
See smoke detector.
Buildings must be designed so that occupants can escape safely if a fire breaks out. They must be able to reach a place of safety without being overcome by heat or smoke, and so the time taken to escape needs to be shorter that the likely time it will take for fire or smoke to spread.
This can be achieved by controlling fire spread and by ensuring that escape routes are easily accessible and neither too long nor too complex. People with mobility problems who may need assistance must also be considered.
Escape strategies might include:
- Egress: Simple direct escape from a building when an alarm is sounded.
- Refuge: The use of the fire containment to provide a place of safety within a building.
- Rescue: This is a last resort.
The ability of a building's design to contain a fire once started is critical to the protection of the property, the lives of the occupants and also surrounding people and buildings. It is the 'tactic' most clearly covered by legislation and also one which insurance companies are most concerned with.
Passive measures concern the nature of the building structure, subdivision and envelope. They are the properties of a building's construction which serve to limit the spread of fire and smoke in case of a fire.
See Fire compartmentation for more information.
- Resistance to collapse, i.e. the ability to maintain loadbearing capacity (which applies to loadbearing elements only).
- Resistance to fire penetration, i.e. an ability to maintain the integrity of the element.
- Resistance to the transfer of excessive heat, i.e. an ability to provide insulation from high temperatures.
- Oversizing: Deliberately increasing the size of an assembly so that part of it can be destroyed without affecting the structural performance of the rest.
- Insulation: The provision of a layer of insulating materials around the assembly to protect it from the heat of a fire.
- Dissipation: Ensuring that heat applied to an assembly is rapidly dissipated to other materials or to the air, so that the temperature of the assembly is not raised to a critical level.
The level of fire protection appropriate to structural elements depends on:
- The need for escape (to get occupants out).
- Extinguishment (how long it will take to put out).
According to the Building Regulations Approved Document B, the structural elements which require fire protection are those which support a roof, which does not normally include single storey buildings. Exceptions to this are where an element of structure provides support or stability to elements, such as:
- A separating wall.
- A compartment wall.
- An external wall which must retain stability to prevent fire spreading to adjacent buildings.
- A support to a gallery or roof which also forms the function of a floor.
Most multi-storey, non-residential buildings in England are 2, 3 and 4 storeys in height, and the majority are classed as offices, shops, commercial and assembly. This means that they dominant period of fire resistance is 60 minutes.
Once the length of time a structure must survive has been established, it is possible to design the structural elements to provide that degree of safety.
The spread of fire can be restricted by sub-dividing buildings into a number of discrete compartments. These fire compartments are separated from one another by compartment walls and compartment floors made of a fire-resisting construction which hinders the spread of fire.
- Prevents the rapid spread of fire which could trap the occupants of a building.
- Reduces the chance of fires growing and creating a danger to occupants, fire and rescue services, and people in the vicinity of the building.
- Limits the damage caused to a building and its contents.
The degree of sub-division that should be provided by fire compartmentation will be dependent on:
- The use of the building.
- The fire load in the building.
- The height of the building.
- The availability of a sprinkler system.
For more information see Fire compartmentation.
Attention needs to be focused on the roof and external walls. Once alight a roof can discharge flaming particles carried by convection currents, which pose a hazard if they land on other buildings. It is easier to design a roof that will resist penetration and fire spread than to ensure that a roof will not cause this problem.
External walls need careful consideration as heat radiated through them from a burning building might ignite adjoining buildings if they are too close. The danger of radiant heat can be reduced by restricting the number of openings in the external walls of a building if it is close to other buildings.
 Active measures
Even when well designed it is inevitable that doors on escape routes will have to be opened and that smoke will therefore flow into the protected area. This danger can be reduced by using lobby access to staircases which provide a form of 'airlock' where only one door will be open at any time.
An alternative approach is to pressurise protected areas such as corridors and stairs. Fresh air is supplied to the area to be kept smoke-free and the air pressure is maintained above that of surrounding rooms. If a door into the pressurised area is opened, air will flow out rather smoke flowing in.
The simplest way of stopping smoke spreading within a building is allowing smoke to escape to the outside. This will not extinguish the fire but it will tend to contain smoke to its area of origin and gain time for people to escape and for measures to extinguish the fire to be taken.
Although it may be possible to assume that initially smoke will exit directly through roof vents, as the fire grows, layer of smoke will build up beneath the ceiling or roof. This layer will get thicker as the fire grows and the smoke level will gradually descend.
Smoke venting systems must be designed to ensure that the smoke being added to the smoke layer is exactly balanced by that being expelled through the vents so that the depth of the smoke layer remains constant and does not descends to a level where it endanger the occupants (2.5 m clear height).
Limitation of the horizontal spread of smoke can be achieved by the installation of smoke curtains which are barriers that come down from the ceiling and create smoke reservoirs. Smoke curtains may be permanently in place or triggered to fall by fire.
The most common extinguishing agents are:
- Carbon dioxide.
- Dry powder.
- Halon gas.
These agents can be applied either by the occupants themselves, through auto-suppression systems, or by the fire and rescue service.
Sprinklers are designed to extinguish small fires or contain growing fires until the fire and rescue service arrives. Almost all buildings over 30 m in height must be fitted with a sprinkler system installed in accordance with the appropriate British Standards.
Sprinkler heads are heat sensitive and normally activate at 68°C. Each sprinkler head acts as its own heat detector and only those in the fire area will be activated. The area usually taken as being covered by an individual sprinkler head is 9 m2.
In certain buildings, it can be difficult for the fire and rescue service to safely reach and work close to fires. Under such circumstances additional facilities are required to ensure that there is no delay and to provide a secure operating base. This might include:
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Automatic fire detection and alarm systems, an introductory guide to components and systems BR 510.
- External fire spread, Supplementary guidance to BR 187 incorporating probabilistic and time-based approaches.
- Fire and rescue service.
- Fire authority.
- Fire compartmentation.
- Fire damper.
- Fire detection and alarm system.
- Fire inspector.
- Fire protection engineering.
- Fire resistance.
- Fire risk assessments and historic buildings.
- Fire safety officer.
- Firefighting route.
- Firefighting shaft.
- Health and safety executive.
- Ionisation smoke alarm.
- Joint fire code.
- Means of escape.
- Smoke detector.
- The causes of false fire alarms in buildings.
- The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
 External references
- Fire safe – Fire safety advice centre
Featured articles and news
Studio Libeskind reveal designs for a new skyscraper with a living facade in Toulouse.
A mega-dome, a cenotaph for Newton, a bubble over New York - some of the most famous projects that were never realised.
One of the oldest and finest examples of Byzantine and Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock.
Have a look at our article explaining thermal comfort in buildings.
BRE's ethical labour sourcing standard and how it could help tackle modern slavery in the construction industry.
BSRIA publish mechanical and electrical maintenance customer satisfaction key performance indicators.
Have a look at our article on the history, practice and techniques of placemaking.
Have a look at the key recommendations from ICE's new report on the digital transformation of infrastructure.
The Gate of Europe, the world's first inclining high-rises, with a lean of 15-degrees.
Why engineers need to keep pace with the challenges and opportunities of the digital transformation of the infrastructure sector.