A proposed new course on fire-safe design could deliver a ‘paradigm shift’ in how architects create buildings, according to the head of the Bartlett School of Architecture
The school, part of University College London (UCL), is developing the one-year master’s programme with a view to welcoming its first students in September 2021.
Bartlett director Bob Sheil said the course was a result of watching the ‘horrific’ Grenfell disaster unfold and thinking through the questions it raised for the industry. A detailed report covering the first phase of the public inquiry into the fire will be officially published tomorrow (30 October).
‘It was one of those moments where you had to stop in your tracks and ask what can we do about this,’ said Sheil, who believes the programme will be the first of its kind. ‘One of the things we have come to realise is there is a huge amount of research and development and education that can go into understanding building design through safety as a fundamental starting point, not as a late fix.’
He said that, for too long, the issue of safety had been approached as ‘an add-on or a rationalisation of something else that has already been proposed’, but the programme would seek to bring these considerations into early design decisions.
Sheil (left) added: ‘What we are really proposing here is a paradigm shift and [to] think about safety in the early stages of design propositions as a positive contributor to good design.’
The proposed course, which is yet to be approved by UCL, will have an intake of about 20 students a year. It will be aimed at qualified architects or people working in other areas of design, and be offered on both a full-time and part-time basis.
The curriculum will cover issues such as escape routes, fire separation and how and where to introduce fire suppression systems like sprinklers.
Bartlett professor of innovative technology Stephen Gage said there were two types of building that were ‘really quite complex in the fire context’: tall buildings, particularly residential tower blocks, and ‘big areas of assembly’ such as theatres and shopping centres.
The AJ100 top-ranked architecture school is drawing on the university’s engineering expertise for the course. The programme is being developed in collaboration with Jose Torero Cullen, head of UCL’s department of civil, environmental and geomatic engineering, who specialises in fire safety engineering and building design. He is acting as an expert witness in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
Cullen said construction processes had become more complex over the past 15 years. ‘As they become much more complex, they are introducing new hazards which are being, in many ways, not accounted for,’ he said. He claimed Grenfell Tower, with the introduction of new cladding driven by energy reduction and sustainability concerns, was a ‘perfect example’ of this.
He added: ‘The problem that I think architects are facing is, by not being able to be familiar enough with the implications of this new technology, they are inadvertently incurring a risk in their choices of systems and materials that in the past was not the case.’
Cullen said the need to change architects’ ‘baseline knowledge’ was fundamental to the new programme. ‘I think if architects have a better understanding of these systems and the new complexity they will also have a lot more freedom when it comes to design because they are understanding better what risks they are taking – and the risks they are avoiding.’
He said it was the architect’s role to correctly set the problem and the engineer’s to deliver the solution. ‘We are not trying to create engineers,’ Cullen said. ‘What we are trying to create is architects that can design the best buildings for engineers to be able to work with.’
Last year, proposals outlined in the Hackitt report on building and fire safety regulations suggested that the Architects Registration Board (ARB) should assess the competency level of architects in relation to fire-safety design issues for higher-risk residential buildings.
Sheil said the proposed new programme was not a reaction to regulation. But he said the Bartlett recognised that the issue of fire safety was increasingly being talked about in the mainstream and that there was a ‘vacuum’ on who would lead on it.
He said there was a shortage in the industry for many specialisms, including fire-safe design. The Bartlett, which teaches 23 masters and undergraduate degree programmes, is also looking to introduce specialist programmes in climate resilience, advanced media and urban computing, all of which would build on core architectural training.
‘We can’t keep force-feeding the general practitioner with demands for expertise that are really specialised,’ he said. ‘What we need to offer in the future of architectural education is the choice for students to elect to take on board a particular specialism on the back of their general knowledge.’
The Bartlett is looking to gauge the level of interest in its fire-safe design course and has launched an online survey to collect feedback.