Industry opinion

Iain Cox, Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, asks if we’re prioritising sustainability over resilience to fire?

In a post-Covid world, the need to consider the overall sustainability of the built environment to make sure we build and renovate in a low-carbon and circular way will require all stakeholders to build better. Historically, actions we take in the name of sustainability have created some challenges from a fire perspective – not that sustainability was wrong – but we need to think of the impact of these actions, particularly the impact on fire.

A recent fire destroyed a motorcycle museum in Austria that had been lauded for its green credentials. When I looked at the Austrian fire, I kept running into images of a similar structure here in England, the Carbon Neutral Laboratory in Nottingham. It too was built with excellent sustainability credentials and destroyed by fire. The timber construction, so prized for its sustainability credits, meant the building was more vulnerable, especially as it did not have active fire protection.

The laboratory in Nottingham was rebuilt in line with regulations but using the same design principle and materials as before, and according to contractor Morgan Sindall, is “indistinguishable” from the previous building. Imagine my dismay on reading about the rebuilding and its fine green credentials, but with no increase in fire resilience and no active fire protection. The very same building went on to win the Sustainability Project of the Year at the annual Building Awards (organised by Building Magazine).

To be clear, the Sustainability Project of the Year is a building that burnt completely to the ground and then needed to be rebuilt – a fire that could be seen for miles and required more than 60 firefighters and thousands of litres of water to quell. It raises the question of how sustainable such a project can be when one considers the impact of fire.

Should fire be a factor in the measure of sustainability?

None of the metrics that define prized sustainability awards consider fire or its impact. A building that burns to the ground and needs to be rebuilt does not incur any penalty in these schemes. Only last year, Premier Inn was granted planning permission to replace a hotel that was largely destroyed by fire in the summer of 2019 despite the efforts of 60 firefighters. The event disrupted local roads, businesses and stretched resources. There were no sprinklers in the building and the damage was so extensive the local fire and rescue service was unable to conclude on the cause. There are no sprinklers noted in the planned rebuilding. However, the planning details for the new hotel note that it will have a BREEAM very good rating by achieving more than a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions over and above the standards set in prior Building Regulations. The aspects of fire safety are noted as being covered separately by Building Regulations – the same Building Regulations that are currently under review, which begs the question, isn’t it time we also reviewed how we define sustainability and considered fire as part of this? 

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Iain Cox is Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, the National Fire Sprinkler Network and the Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council.

He retired from the fire service in June 2013 after 34 years. From 2009 to 2011 he was a Board member of the Chief Fire Officers Association. He was awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal in 2009.



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