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Fire prevention, insurance and a security guard with a hero complex were all discussed at the Burning Issues conference The AJ Burning Issues conference took place at the RIBA on 27 November, sponsored by fire-resistant building materials makers Euroclad and Rockwool, fire and risk engineering consultancy Safe and fire sprinkler maker Homesafe. The conference, subtitled 'Understanding Insurance, Risk and Fire', gave a clear exposition of fire risks, how to avoid them and how to insure against them.

Paul Hyett, chairman of RyderHKS and former RIBA president, chaired the conference, which was held in the RIBA's solemn, wood-panelled Jarvis Hall (which, one couldn't help thinking, would burn vigorously without much encouragement). The besuited audience was mostly male. Between sessions, Hyett held the audience rapt with many an amusing yet horrifying anecdote. A chirpy story about two insurance companies fighting over a man who lost both his eyes in a freak accident, for instance; and another about trying to negotiate the London Underground in a wheelchair. A final anecdote told of a schizophrenic setting an aeroplane toilet on fire during a long-haul flight from South Africa and having to be taped into the seat next to Hyett for the duration of the flight. Can you imagine the horror?

But don't worry, eventually the schizophrenic managed to get away? If you can't stand the heat Hyett opened the conference by remarking that the importance of structure and materials are well known but that the education of professionals is the most important move toward good fire prevention. In most cases, he pointed out, temperature doesn't kill - smoke does.

At D³sseldorf Airport in 1996, a fire killed 17 and injured 72, not because the airport did not have a warning system but due to human and technological failure. The system had not eliminated the lack of coordination between city and airport fire brigades; the inability of someone to push a button caused people to move towards, not away from, the fire; and smoke interrupted the light that held lift doors open.

The events of 11 September were unusual, said Hyett, because the majority of victims died through structural collapse or were incinerated by high-octane jet fuel. Fires usually smoulder and take some time to get going; at the World Trade Center the fires were virtually instantaneous. But this doesn't mean we should stop building tall buildings.

'Should a jet crash into Marble Arch and career into Selfridges, it could leave 15,000 to 20,000 dead, but we wouldn't stop building streets, ' he argued.

Ensuring safety Next Bill Gloyn, chairman of AON and the BPF Insurance Committee and member of the JCT Insurance Committee, discussed the insurance industry and explored what architects and building owners need to know about what can and cannot be insured against. Although most of his talk sounded like pure common sense, it contained timely warnings.

Gloyn defined risk as 'exposure to the chance of injury or loss', and said insurance is only one part of risk management. In the property world, risk is often managed by 'gut feelings' but, he admitted, it is actually (and needs to be) far more formal.

Risk analysis should be a four-part cycle: analysing and quantifying the risk; identifying ways to eliminate or reduce risk; coming up with a risktransfer or retention strategy; and review. 'Insurance is no substitute for effective risk management, ' he said.

This, he explained, is partly because 'the human costs cannot be quantified (scale up telling your spouse you've crashed the car by a factor of 100)';

and because effective insurance may not be in place even if you think it is.

The troubled insurance industry was fragile even before 11 September.

Now, said Gloyn, 'if your insurer has gone bust then there is no cover', even if it goes bust between the event and adjudication (bear in mind that terrorism is now excluded from insurance in the US, though not in the UK). Premiums are up, cover is down; architects should not rely on their professional indemnity insurance, but should engage in more due diligence and redeploy resources into fire prevention.

Old flames Peter Bressington, senior fire engineer, leader of Arup Fire International and director of Ove Arup & Partners, discussed 'proportionate response' to disasters.What architects should consider is: will the building fall down; how will that affect the way we build; what else can happen; what is the risk; and how long will it take to get out of the building?

He showed a slide of his delightful 'anxiety curve' that rises after a catastrophe and dissipates over time and as the real risks are reduced, and ways to measure, mitigate, reduce or eliminate these risks are found.We cannot make buildings terrorist-proof, he said.

Bressington examined some new tools of risk assessment: computer modelling of fire, temperature and smoke density, as well as phased evacuations and finite element analysis of materials. Simple measures include concrete cores, staircases for simultaneous evacuation and improved communications within a building.

Present codes are fine for 99 per cent of buildings, he said. 'For conventional fires we use the techniques available, ' he continued, 'we can't wait for the guidance notes and laws to change. After all, it's just basic physics.' But options such as using protected lifts for evacuation are beginning to be examined.

Fire or flood?

Miller Hannah, head of the fire engineering group at Hoare Lea & Partners, put forward a challenge to British regulators and architects. The dull design of flats in the UK, he argued, could be revolutionised by the use of smoke detectors and heat sensors, and in particular internal sprinklers. Their installation cost is about £20/m 2and at 15 litres/minute they cause little water damage compared with a firehose at 250 litres/ minute, and reduce damage by up to 80 per cent and deaths to almost zero.

For specialist industrial environments, he recommended OxyReduct, a German oxygen-reduced environment in which fires literally cannot ignite (www. wagneruk. com/fireprev. html).

They claim that the reduction in local atmospheric oxygen content, from the usual 21 per cent to 15 per cent, has no ill effects on humans so long as they have a 30-minute break every six hours. The system uses a nitrogen generator and is intended for IT areas, communications rooms, warehouses, museums and so on.

Tim Partington, director at Chapman Taylor, discussed designing shopping centres, in particular mixed-use retail and leisure schemes.

His tale of a security guard who lit a fire deliberately in the Lakeside House of Fraser's toilets just before the mall opened riveted the audience.

The man had hoped to claim a bonus for heroically extinguishing the fire, but it got out of control and the erstwhile hero landed in jail. This small fire did so much smoke damage that the store required a complete refit and opened a year later than planned.

Partington explained the tension between the health and safety of individuals and the protection of property, and how this affects the sizing and location of exits. He also explored using natural air flow with extractor fans for ventilation and to maintain visibility; the use of automatic sprinklers to contain fires; and how roofs that serve as smoke reservoirs now add to, rather than detract from, a mall's design.

Regular evacuation John Cooper, a director at Anshen Dyer, expressed his hope that hospital building is finally returning to the mainstream of architecture and moving away from Stalinist NHS culture.

The main issue in hospital fire safety is containing a fire, because, given the nature of the occupants, many people cannot move swiftly or safely to get out. Hospitals use 'progressive horizontal' evacuation, moving patients sideways to safety, and only remove them from the building as a last resort. At present, nurses cannot even train for a 'mattress evacuation' because they might hurt their backs.

Compartmentation has been highly successful to date: Cooper amazed the conference with the statistic that in 1994-95 only one death occurred in the 903 fires on NHS premises - a mental patient who finally succeeded in immolating himself after repeated attempts. But building works and faulty fire doors can compromise this.

New hospital design must also incorporate not only clinical and therapeutic but also retail spaces. An endless succession of fire doors can impede nurses doing their work, and 35 per cent (of doors) don't work anyway. Cooper hopes to see greater use of sprinklers, as in the US, revolutionising British hospital design.

From the Richard Rogers Partnership, Marcus Lee, who at one time worked on the firm's Terminal 5 bid, mentioned fire engineering concerns but discussed mainly how long it has taken for T5 to be completed.

He reiterated the theme of moving people sideways, not down, for security reasons, and also that the smoke reservoir-cum-roof also has structural uses.

Risk assessment Bob Keenan, of Sheppard Robson's Technical Services Group, discussed office fire engineering and said he expected the relevant regulations to move towards SARA (sufficient, adequate, reasonable, acceptable) - a scale of risk assessment and analysis similar to that used for the Disability Discrimination Act.

Firefighters think current legislation is biased towards buildings, while insurers think it is biased towards human health. Keenan surprised the conference with the statistic that 40 per cent of office fires are started by employees, whether by bringing in dodgy kettles or toasters, padlocking final exits or wedging open fire doors.

He said he expects regulation to change and hopes the changes will address the broken line of authority for office fire safety among building control, fire officers and consultants.

He added that fire engineering is still seen as a 'black art' and suffers badly from 'acronymitis', but improved performance specifications and codes should reduce confusion and produce some cost savings.

Barry Pritchard, partner at RHWL, explored fire engineering at the London Coliseum. At the end of the 19th century, Captain Shaw of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade instituted huge improvements in theatre fire regulations, bringing in safety curtains, ventilated staircases, minimum gangway widths, etc. The current three-year, £41 million modernisation of the Coliseum will include new life-safety systems, new ventilation and smoke extraction, more open stairways, simplified fire compartmentation, fire doors held open electronically and improved disabled access. Air will be extracted to the top of the auditorium and 286 nozzles will spiral slightly pressurised air down inside to keep any smoke on stage. No audible alarms will sound - instead, a pre-recorded message (people have been shown to respond more readily to vocal commands) will calmly ask the audience to evacuate.

Pritchard feels that some safety measures compromise design and hopes to see the use of new methods and technologies, such as wayfinding, lighting, carbon monoxide (not smoke) detectors and heat-seeking CCTV monitors.

Jonathan Manser, joint managing director of the Manser Practice, touched on the difficulties in making fire safety provisions for hotel guests, who may be present for 24 hours a day, who are invariably strangers to the building, who may sleep in the day and/or night, and who are often intoxicated and sometimes wish to avoid discovery during a secret assignation.

Further complicating matters, guests may be disorientated or even intent on suicidal action, and may inadvertently interfere with fire detection and/or alarm systems by smoking, burning toast or even drying their smalls on the lampshade.

Fire exit strategy Manser urged keeping escape routes straight, with daylight visible at each end, sound alarms for non-English speakers and clear signage for those who may have run out without spectacles or contact lenses and providing 30 minutes' fire resistance between bedroom and corridor - not difficult as acoustic damping often equals minimum fire performance.

Mick Green, the partner at Buro Happold responsible for fire engineering, explored performance standards, specifically fire engineering versus regulations.

He said that the various forms of current guidance often have indistinct boundaries, which may make different considerations for escape time, for example. Green also considered the benefits of next summer's BS9999, 'Fire Safety in the Design, Construction and Use of Buildings', and suggested examining how to control the fire load at the design stage.

Ian Jerome, senior consultant with the Fire Protection Association, suggested that 'architects are at risk', referring to Sahib Foods v Paskin Kyriadkides Sands, in which the architect was found 'negligent and liable' despite client knowledge.

Jerome cited an obvious need for a coherent fire strategy, but said the existing insurer's LPC Design Guide 2000 enjoyed only a modest impact and was largely ignored by architects - even though it has sound content, including 150 pages of information sheets for fire performance of generic building systems in fire and a CD .

He drew attention to a new version of the guide, which highlights the importance of risk assessment and management, and the promotion of good design practice.

The new CD has been available from 6 December. The new format contains, among other things, firesafety guides focusing on multi-storey buildings, food factories, cold stores, warehouses and kitchen-extract systems.

Warming tales The conference ended with much new information to digest, not least the realisation that in technical conferences informed anecdotal evidence is usually an entertaining and rewarding way of getting your message across.

Liz Bailey is a journalist specialising in technology. Email: lizzie@lizzie. net

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