In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, the importance of fire safety engineering gained further public prominence. After decades of regulatory non-compliance, many building owners and commercial property managers are concerned with implementing retrospective improvements, particularly in social housing which was the subject of a prominent 2021 House of Commons Debate.
Building owners who are unsure whether their buildings fall within regulatory parameters will consult fire engineers to learn what needs to be done to achieve compliance, whilst also safeguarding buildings and their occupants. This article will offer an overview of fire engineering, with a range of important principles and methods for a deeper knowledge and understanding of structural fire protection.
Fire engineering (also known as fire protection engineering) is a specialised area of building design that focuses on protecting buildings and tenants from fires. It involves advanced materials and techniques aimed at preventing or containing fires and may call for improvements not included in the original building plans. This is often the case with older buildings that were constructed in adherence to certain regulations that are not permissible under today’s higher standards.
Passive Fire Protection Engineering
Although it’s a complex field, the basic principles of fire protection engineering are easy to understand. Simply put, slowing the spread of fire and smoke by implementing passive fire protection means a longer timeframe in which people can evacuate the building and a better chance of the fire being brought under control before it causes extensive damage.
To achieve this extra margin of safety, fire engineers apply a variety of techniques and strategies. Compartmentation is one of the most powerful tools a fire protection engineer has at his or her disposal. This involves dividing buildings into ‘compartments’ which are then reinforced with fireproofing methods to prevent the spread of fire and smoke.
Building collapse or the spread of fire owing to heat is also of concern, so it is important to reduce heat exposure to load-bearing structural components. Fire engineers must ensure that compartments aren’t compromised, so their work includes identifying gaps or service penetrations around pipes, cables and other structural elements as part of a compliant firestopping strategy.
To clarify these principles, let’s take a closer look at some of the strategies employed by fire protection engineers.
If a fire breaks out, limiting its spread is a priority. This can be achieved by splitting up a structure into compartments that are separated by fire-resistant materials, fire doors, and cavity barriers. This confines flames and smoke to a manageable area of the building, preserving crucial escape routes and reducing the risk of structural collapse.
Any shared parts of the structure, such as beams, must also be fitted with fireproof materials at their junction to neighbouring compartments so that the compartments remain isolated from each other. Less obvious, but equally important, any piping or conducting that runs through compartments must be fireproofed too. The full list of compartmentation requirements can be found in Approved Document B.
While the average person may not even be aware of cavities, sealing them to prevent air buoyancy or the “chimney effect” is vital to controlling the spread of fire and smoke. Without cavity barriers, a fire can spread rapidly, engulfing a building within minutes. To isolate cavities from one another, fire protection engineers use fire-resistant materials called cavity barriers. Cavity barriers are composed of inert materials that will expand when exposed to heat, closing off any gaps that could enable the spread of fire or smoke.
While stopping fires is the primary aim of fire safety engineering, the term “fire stopping” refers to how holes made for cables, water pipes, and so on are sealed off. Fire sleeves or fire collars installed around cable conduits and pipes are made from materials that will expand to completely seal gaps when temperatures rise.
There are even full fire covers for ceilings that expand and insulate adjoining materials in the event of a fire. On a smaller scale, some special sealants and fillers help to close off gaps that could allow fire through if left unprotected. In all instances, even well-chosen products will be rendered ineffective if they are not installed or applied correctly.
Structural Steel Fire Protection
Steel will lose its load-bearing properties when subjected to intense heat, so it’s important to protect structural steel from extreme temperatures. There are several ways of doing this, as intumescent coatings, flexible blanket systems, fireproof boards, cementitious coatings, autoclaved aerated concrete, and firestopping sprays can all protect structural steel from heat. The chosen method will depend on a variety of factors including both practical and aesthetic requirements.
Whether buildings are used for residential or commercial purposes, protecting property and lives must be a priority. Following Grenfell Tower, a combination of factors showed how that particular fire spread so rapidly, and the new building regulations strive to address them. Proper compliance benefits everyone. Building owners can hope for a better chance of their properties being saved from destruction, and any people inside a building at the time of a fire can be evacuated safely. This applies to all buildings, but those used for housing are of particular concern.
CLM Fireproofing offers industry-leading structural audits as part of our remediation services. We have a reputation for quality installation, regulatory compliance and project management. In our remedial works for local authority housing, every effort is made to ensure that our interventions are minimally disruptive to the building’s occupants.
It’s our job to help building owners and property managers navigate their way toward full compliance and best practice, and we balance technical expertise with professionalism and compassion. If you think you could benefit from our expertise in fire protection compliance contact CLM Fireproofing today.