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First line of defence

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As firefighters concentrate on saving lives rather than property, and insurers react accordingly, it falls to architects to inform themselves about designing to prevent fire.

Ruth Slavid reports It's a tough life being a fireman - not just the hours, the disputes over pay and the ludicrous adulation of teenage girls; it is also a genuinely dangerous job. So it is not surprising that fire brigades are trying to make it a little safer.

One way is to concentrate on saving lives rather than property, which is something fire brigades are doing increasingly. In certain building types where the fire brigade knows there is a danger of rapid progressive collapse - food processing plants, for example, traditionally among the most dangerous environments during a fire - they will only go in if there are people at risk.

All well and good, because the only thing we care about is saving life, isn't it? Well, not really.

The corollary of not saving property is that the insurers can pay. But increasingly they can't, or won't.

The days of easy universal insurance have long gone. Insurers have had too many major losses and have become more cautious, restricting the circumstances in which they will offer cover. This is true not just for buildings but in all sorts of other areas. Just as, for instance, small events can no longer get Pluvius insurance to cover them against being rained off, there are only a very limited number of companies prepared to insure school buildings.

These issues are the concern of the Fire Protection Association, an organisation partly owned by the insurance industry and which contracts to carry out research on its behalf.

Jonathan O'Neill, managing director of the FPA, explains why the organisation is eager to give architects a better understanding of the issues that concern it: 'We were concerned that, from an insurer's point of view, saying that a building meets the statutory requirements does not mean you have a good fire risk.'

Explaining why it is so important to reduce the number and severity of fires, he adds, 'we are seeing larger fires more often; arson is becoming the norm for fires that brigades have to tackle'. Figures show that arson is the cause of half of all fires, with three-quarters of fires in schools started deliberately. One in seven schools will suffer an arson attack in the next year, and the attacks will cost schools (or their insurers) £100 million.

One way of dealing with these problems could be through better fire-detection monitoring, but it is also important to design buildings in such a way that it is difficult for fires to take hold, and to ensure buildings are managed in such a way that their fire integrity is not compromised.

Wake-up call The case of Paskin Kyriakides Sands (PKS) last year was a wake-up call for architects on the importance of getting it right (AJ 20.3.03).

The practice faced possible bankruptcy when it was hit by a bill as high as £21 million. The situation for the practice is looking rather better now, with the strong probability that its responsibility will be reduced on appeal - but the principle still applies.

The practice was found to be negligent and hence responsible for the spread of a fire in a building it had designed for Sahib Foods. This was on the basis that it should have known that the combustible insulated panels it specified would have facilitated the spread of fire through the building, and that this was a foreseeable risk given the nature of the client's business. The judge ruled that the practice was liable, even though its design complied with Building Regulations.

However this particular case is resolved, the nub of the issue is that merely complying with Building Regulations may not be enough, either legally in the case of a fire occurring or, most definitely, in terms of gaining insurance for a building.

'At the moment architects are going for the statutory minimum, ' says O'Neill. 'We would like them to think more broadly.' Other factors that make this essential include the rapid changes of use of buildings, a different approach to the way buildings operate and the end of fire certification.

Buildings often move from one type of use to another, especially within the general 'light industrial' category, and this can cause problems, as fire risk may escalate. A contributing factor in the PKS case was that the architect didn't believe the building would be used for activities as risky as those that took place. Looking at the issue more generally, O'Neill says: 'We do think buildings can be designed so that change of use can be accommodated.'

The way buildings are used also puts them more at risk. Warehouses, for instance, are much more automated than they used to be, with taller spaces and more openings between them. Not only does this increase the potential for spread of fire, it also decreases the number of people present and hence the potential for fires to be spotted.

Building owners are also having to take more responsibility, as the system of fire certification is being replaced by the requirement for owners to do a risk assessment. 'The new regime will be goal-based, ' O'Neill explains. 'It will be the responsibility of the owner to do a risk assessment of the building and to maintain that risk assessment.' This will include not only an assessment of the risk to life safety but also of the risk to adjoining and adjacent property, and to firefighters.

The architect's role There should certainly be a role for architects in the ongoing management of buildings, since insurance inspections often point up cases where compartmentation has been breached by ill-considered alterations or installation of services. But O'Neill also wants them to have a larger involvement at the design stage.

With this in mind, the FPA published a guidance document in 2000 called The LPC Design Guide for the Fire Protection of Buildings.It received so little attention that O'Neill describes it as 'one of the best-kept secrets of the insurance world'. In an attempt to reach a wider slice of the profession, it issued a CD at the end of last year (which was sent out free with the AJ).

As well as PDFs of the manual, the CD had a list of 12 essential principles that architects should consider when designing for fire (see box, right).

Taken to extremes, following this approach could mean that architects will design insurable buildings rather than those that could risk not getting insurance at all - which one could argue could mean they are not fit for purpose. Less dramatically, it could help to reduce insurance premiums and the running costs of buildings, and hence of businesses. For some, this could mean the difference between survival and extinction, since research has shown that many businesses forced to close temporarily as the result of fire never win back the lost custom.

Architects who inform themselves better about designing to prevent fire may find that they are saving the lives, not only of human beings, but also of enterprises. A real case of adding value.

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