This informal CPD article ‘Fire Safety: A Sustainable Practice’ was provided by Tom Roche, Secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance established in 2010 as an alliance of fire safety professionals working to protect UK plc against fire.
It has become clear the planet is approaching a tipping point when it comes to global warming which is why the built environment has such a critical role to play in climate change mitigation. Whilst the built environment was responsible for around 37% of the world’s CO2 output in 20211, a call for the use of natural construction materials, greater insulation and low carbon heat options should not be at the expense of fire performance. Managing fire safety and energy objectives together makes perfect sense. If a building's design and construction fail to safeguard against destructive risks such as fire, any sustainability gains will be negated.
While buildings using ‘eco-friendly’ or sustainable materials often receive recognition and accolades by green rating systems, it’s equally important to evaluate them in terms of risk and performance. A fire can reveal a building’s vulnerability to fire regardless of its sustainability credentials. This was the case in January 2021 when an unsprinklered motorcycle museum in Austria was destroyed by fire, despite the building being recognised for its green credentials. Another structure in England suffered the same fate. The Carbon Neutral Laboratory in Nottingham was prized for its sustainability, but its timber construction and the fact it had no active fire protection meant it was vulnerable to fire. It too was destroyed by fire.
When the Carbon Neutral Laboratory was rebuilt using the same design principles and materials as before, contractor Morgan Sindall said it was "indistinguishable" from the previous building. Despite being built in line with regulations, there was no increase in fire resilience and no active fire protection.
Ironically, the reconstructed laboratory won the ‘Sustainability Project of the Year’ at the annual Building Awards. These awards recognised the rebuilt laboratory for its sustainability and carbon savings but clearly overlooked its failure to improve resilience after fire.
Sustainable project destroyed
One must question how a building that burned to the ground and required rebuilding went on to win ‘Sustainability Project of the Year’. Visible for miles, the fire required over 60 firefighters who used thousands of litres of water to quell the blaze. The charred remains had to be removed and disposed of by specialist contractors before new materials were procured again, shipped to site and re-erected by scores of contractors for a second time.
Luton Airport car park
The Luton Airport car park fire garnered a lot of attention in October 2023. It was clear that the newly built car park will have to be demolished and the near 1500 cars within it would have to be scrapped following the fire. What did not gain as much attention was that within weeks the same airport was releasing the news that it had retained its position as an ESG sector leader. It is a remarkable achievement that Luton Airport is an ESG sector leader, upholding high standards for environmental, social and corporate governance. Stop and think of how the fire blows a big whole in their plans as the demolition, rebuild and the recreation of 1500 cars must carry environmental and social consequences? How will they respond and demonstrate that leadership or is this fire a factor that will be ignored in this ranking scheme?
This raises the question of how sustainable such projects can be over their lifetime when considering the impact of fire. It highlights how fire safety could be better addressed and integrated into measurements of sustainability. Fire resilience should be a greater factor in evaluations of sustainability.
In the case of Luton Airport, they suggested that a large fire in a car park was something that could not be foreseen. So, could it be that people believe that fires do not happen so we do not have to account for them? I fear it is far simpler.