How offsite benefits better fire protection

Ian King of Zeroignition looks at the benefits of modern methods of construction, and how the solutions offered by adopting an offsite approach can be applied to benefit fire protection and safety.

Recently, the National Housing Federation found that more than 8 million people in England – or one in seven people – are living in an unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable home.

This is increasing pressure on contractors to deliver bigger, quicker and cheaper builds, which can result in mistakes being made and sometimes corners even being cut – a situation which has the potential to cost lives. The construction industry shoulders much responsibility so the importance of making fundamental changes to methods of working is immeasurable.

The benefits of modular
Of the 200,000 homes built each year in the UK, around 15,000 are modular. With fewer lorry deliveries to building sites, modular constructions have a lower carbon footprint and nearby residents are exposed to less noise and visual pollution. The whole offsite construction process can also be completed in roughly half the time of a traditional build.

Furthermore, modular construction allows for the standardising of housing design, making production more efficient. There is an important lesson to be learned here in how offsite manufacturers use monitored and checked components to ensure products meet performance specifications.

By introducing quality checks and tests during component assembly in the factory setting, it’s easy to develop and implement industry-standard certifications.

When taken to the construction site for installation, the workforce will be fully qualified to execute the build, having up-to-date knowledge of the products and the building as a ‘system.’ This approach can be adopted for fire protection design.

The system-led approach
A system-led fire protection design method involves checking that the specified components work both individually and holistically. System components will generally include:

  • Active fire protection – measures triggering a response, such as sprinkler systems and smoke alarms
  • Passive fire protection – measures to slow down or contain fire, such as fire doors and fire-retardant materials.

A system-led approach can combine compartmentation – for example, with fire doors, sprinkler systems and FR-rated OSB board – followed by assessing each component for its individual performance, as well as how it works in combination with other components.

It’s clear, however, that enforcing a system-led approach to fire protection design can only take place if there’s a drastic improvement in key knowledge across the industry.

Awareness must improve
We recently announced a raft of alarming findings from a study of fire protection awareness among architects and specifiers. The basic fire protection terms mentioned earlier – ‘active fire protection’ and ‘passive fire protection’ are linked with the standard terms ‘reaction to fire’ and ‘fire resistance.’ However, a huge 92 per cent of UK architects were unable to define them.

One in three architects were unable to correctly define the concept of active fire protection, while more than half couldn’t give an accurate definition of passive fire protection. A similar number were unable to explain “reaction to fire” protection, and almost three-quarters were unable to define “fire resistance.”

None of the architects interviewed said they had had comprehensive fire protection training; 8 per cent said they’ve had no training whatsoever.

The findings come as an industry-wide shock. Architects are responsible for designing reliable, robust buildings, and there’s clearly a lack of understanding when it comes to fire basics – which is worrying to say the least. Architects, their employers and the professional bodies need to invest in ensuring this vital knowledge is fully distributed, absorbed and practiced.

The traditional approach needs to change
Construction projects are incredibly complex, involving a myriad of decisions. Each choice has a knock-on effect and there can be unforeseen results when a systematic approach to fire protection isn’t adopted.

While architects know that a methodical way is best, there’s clearly some scepticism as to how achievable this is. There is still more to be done by manufacturers and architectural bodies to ensure that best practice is fully established and followed.

Beyond this, the construction industry needs to learn from other industries, such as automotive and aviation, which focus on a ‘checklist’ approach to reduce harm to passengers. If people rely on memory, mistakes happen and the simple action of checking off points can stop fire planning elements being missed.

With a third of architects saying their current employer doesn’t spend enough on fire protection training, there’s clearly an opportunity for the construction and manufacturing sectors to step into the breach, and help fund such training.

Beyond this, we need to look to the latest in communications theory and understanding decision making to ensure that fire communications are presented in a way that sticks, and use ‘nudge theory’ to ensure that it’s easier to do the right thing.

Only when fire protection is taken with the extreme seriousness it deserves can we start looking at new approaches to construction that reinforce a building’s primary role: keeping people safe and secure.

Ian King is chief commercial officer of Zeroignition