As we learn to adopt green design, whether driven by legislation, corporate policy or well-intentioned environmentalism, there is one aspect in the building industry that seems to be a disconnected issue—fire safety.
The main focus has been on green design and its benefits like saving energy and other resources. It is quite ironic that fire, which causes the destruction of properties and lives, has not been well integrated yet in green design.
Are these two disciplines contradictory? Is the drive for sustainability making buildings unsafe? The challenge in the building industry is how to integrate these two elements while considering the environment, including the safety and comfort of building occupants.
These are some of the issues tackled in a recent forum sponsored by the Canadian Embassy. Yeo Swee Khiank, fire safety engineer of Sereca, with offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Singapore, brought up some disturbing data about fire safety conditions in the industry.
A building that burns down is wasteful. So much water is wasted to control or extinguish a fire. Its reconstruction is a waste of building materials and money. A post-fire disposal involves a considerable volume of materials. Finally, we have to deal with the carbon emissions due to the pollution.
Increasing the fire safety of green buildings minimizes the risks to firefighters and public safety. It also reduces the impact that a building may have on the environment.
According to two FM Global Studies, NFPA, fires are contributing a significant volume of greenhouse gases, carbon particulate matter and a host of other pollutants into the atmosphere.
Manual fire suppression efforts use millions of gallons of treated water annually, which is polluted by fire byproducts and then running off into watersheds.
For fire service and green construction to work together, building designers are encouraged to consider firefighter safety. Buildings of light construction have posed danger to firefighters during fires.
According to the US National Association of State Fire Marshals, many of today’s development projects discourage pedestrian traffic in many areas. Large walkable areas provide little firefighter access to building interiors.
Many driveways and parking areas now use permeable surfaces. This allows water to seep to the ground to recharge the aquifer. However, these surfaces must be strong enough to carry the firetrucks and other equipment needed to extinguish the fire.
Landscaping is another green feature that many projects incorporate. If trees and other plants are placed too close to the building, it may hamper the work of the firefighters who need to gain access to the building in case of emergency.
Plants with high moisture content and the overall landscaping scheme will need careful consideration, particularly with the threat of wildland fires.
Some glazing systems make it difficult to break through the window for ventilation or rescue purposes. A blast-resistant film is often applied for security purposes. The disadvantage is that it becomes impossible to penetrate with normal tools. These panels should be clearly identified so that, in case of emergency, the firefighters can use these panels for entry or ventilation.
• Large open spaces. Large open spaces like atria, most common in large malls, provide an opportunity for faster fire growth due to the greater volume of air and the available fuel sources. They create a lack of compartmentalization to limit fire spread.
•Safety zone. One idea that may be used to save lives is by creating a safety zone in the house. This may be a designated bathroom that is made of concrete walls and a fireproof ceiling and louvre windows.
In densely packed wooden housing, there should be fire breaks by way of roads and open spaces to prevent fire from raging through large areas. Evacuation areas and evacuation routes, in addition to efficient fire-fighting equipment should be in place, as part of fire-resistant urban development.
•Batteries for solar panels. Traditional batteries contain highly corrosive acid. Contact with this material can be very injurious to the emergency provider, and inhaling the fumes from the acid could result in long-term medical disability or even death.
•CFD. A computer program known as Computational Fluid Dynamics or CFD is now being used to provide fast, accurate and flexible fluid flow and thermal simulation tools to help predict how the fire behaves given building materials used and equipment and function of the space affected by fire.
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