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Of course architects believe they should make firefighters' lives easier, but is the attitude of the insurance industry a case of the tail wagging the dog?

There may be a primeval excitement in looking at a fire but it is also very frightening. Look at films of past fires and you will be amazed at how fast they spread. Fires can reach 'flashover' - the point at which they are raging out of control - in less than the time it would normally take for the fire brigade to arrive.

At a recent seminar organised by insulation company Rockwool, speakers outlined some of the horrific ways in which things can go wrong. Allan MacPherson, chief engineering specialist of property insurer FM Global UK, discussed the dangers of concealed fire risks, of hazards such as sealed-up rooms in old buildings and hidden fi re routes. He described polystyrene as 'solidified petrol' and said that his company will not insure buildings that use it. And he said of racked storage: 'If you wanted to maximise the possibility of burning, you could do no better.' Ian Gough, divisional officer for fire safety in Northamptonshire, outlined the problems of buildings becoming ever larger. He is concerned that fire-engineering solutions may make a simple equation between the time it takes to evacuate a building and the supposed time to flashover, and assume that if the former is larger, then all is well. And he is worried about whether there is sufficient access for fire-fi ghting equipment specified around very large buildings.

Nobody wants to endanger life, so of course any architect will want to respond to these points. More use of sprinklers, careful specifi cation of insulation materials, increased understanding of the way that individuals behave in fi re, are all desirable and, to an increasing degree, prescribed by regulation. So that is fine then, isn't it?

Well, possibly not. Our article on page 9 outlines ways in which fi re engineering can allow architects to comply with regulations and still design exciting buildings. But increasingly they run the risk of being stopped by the insurance industry, which is coming to see fire engineering as a dirty word.

Insurers are as concerned about preserving the building fabric as they are about saving lives. For example, as one insurer explained, over-engineering steel columns rather than wrapping them in fire protection may ensure that the building does not collapse during the fire but there is little of the structure that will be reusable afterwards, greatly increasing the rebuild cost.

Similarly, fi nding ways of increasing compartment size, or introducing atria is generally unpopular with the insurers. And these insurers are coming to wield growing amounts of power. As demand for their services grows, and they are increasingly worried about the rising level of payouts, so they become more picky. Already there are insurers refusing to tackle certain areas ('no, I don't insure schools, I'm not a charity') and dictating the materials they will accept in other building types. Their power is likely to augment, and they may increasingly dictate the forms that buildings can take.

At which point, the role of the fire engineer may shrink drastically, and architects may discover that there is no point in finding imaginative ways to interpret legislation because they will end up with buildings that cannot be insured. It would be a sad day if the public's pleasure in space and light and volume, the very stuff of architecture, were to be denied by the industry that is supposed to be guaranteeing their safety and financial stability.

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