Lack of knowledge of fire safety engineering and new materials can slow the construction industry

The construction industry often has trouble employing innovative materials and designs, as it is difficult to document adequate fire safety using the existing tools. It takes goal-oriented fire safety research to develop new solutions that can push the industry towards better, less expensive and more sustainable buildings.

European fire safety research is facing considerable challenges, as there is a need for new knowledge to be able to optimally utilise technological developments that have led to new, innovative materials and designs.

Such was the message from fire safety technology experts, who maintain that, currently, it is difficult to document the degree of fire safety of new, innovative building materials and building methods. This can be attributed to the fact that known fire safety methods are based on the use of traditional building materials, and they thus have difficulty incorporating new materials.

One of the experts is the renowned fire safety researcher, Patrick van Hees, who works at Lund University’s Department of Fire Safety Engineering. Patrick sees a huge challenge for the techniques (most often simulation and modelling methods) that are used in the field of fire safety engineering. The same applies to standardised testing methods that are used for the standardised fire classification of materials and components.

“It is necessary to investigate ways in which we can use these techniques in connection with innovative materials, how we can use traditional fire tests in connection with the techniques, and what the need is for new tests,” Patrick states in his article, ‘Challenges for international standardization during the next decades with respect to areas of new innovative products and fire safety engineering.’

Prescriptive or function-based requirements
Carsten Damgaard, who is the head of Research and Development at DBI, agrees with this point of view. As he sees it, there is a lack of knowledge in the field of fire safety that can make it easier to use new materials and designs.

”It’s fundamentally about making it easier to use the function-based requirements, which are also called performance-based requirements. This entails developing new methods for both simulation and testing, so that we can make it easier and cheaper to document the degree of fire safety of new or renovated buildings,” Carsten says.

Traditionally, the work involved in fire safety has been based on prescriptive requirements, which, in turn, are based on years of practical experience, in combination with ongoing technological developments. Basically, the principle is to have qualified members of an engineering committee agree upon how we should build to prevent fire from threatening people and property.

DBI’s guidelines and instructions are examples of prescriptive rule sets that describe how to fireproof a building.

It is an easy solution to work with both with respect to the building and the authorities, as the latter consider the safety requirements to be met if consultants and contractors select the specified solutions.

Innovation in function-based requirements
”The good thing about prescriptive requirements is that the top experts can be assembled to describe the best ways of achieving full fire safety. The drawback, though, lies in the fact that it ’only’ takes time to update guidelines and incorporate new technological possibilities. That’s why prescriptive requirements make it difficult to build innovatively and differently than you would otherwise. And that’s also why they tend to slow down development,” Carsten explains.

In our highly technological society, there is thus a lot to be said for using function-based fire safety requirements to a much larger extent than at present in order to support technological development in connection with better, cheaper and more sustainable buildings.

”With function-based requirements, it is, in principle, possible to build what you want, as long as you can document that the construction is of a sufficient degree of fire safety. This also provides a lot of freedom when it comes to new materials and designs – provided you’re able to convince the building authorities that everything is as safe as they need be,” says Carsten, who goes on to point out:

”That’s exactly where the challenge lies: our knowledge is top-notch when it comes to fireproofing buildings made of traditional materials; but if innovative materials and designs are used, it takes more time and analyses to develop the right fire safety strategies and confirm the level of safety. And that time is something only the fewest developers have time to invest in, and so the easiest solution is to simply do what one has always done. That’s why there is a need for more research, so that we can make it easier for the construction industry to fireproof new, innovative buildings.

The good Danish model

Carsten Damgaard does, however, make a point of praising the Danish model of prescriptive and function-based requirements for being”quite intelligent” in certain ways.

As he points out, knowledge from the function-based area can be incorporated into prescriptive rules relatively quickly. This, in turn, serves to encourage development because the large undergrowth of smaller companies in the construction sector can quickly adopt new solutions without having to be fire safety experts.

One requisite, though, is that larger and professional developers must opt to use and document innovative solutions, so that new knowledge can be generated. It is also difficult to maintain a fast tempo when it comes to maintaining and updating guidelines and instructions.

DBI takes up the challenge
The balance between the prescriptive and the performance-based will actually be addressed in a coming Ph.D. project to be carried out at DBI. The project is set to begin in August of 2014 and bears the title: ’Safe and innovative fire design of new buildings.’ The research project will be carried out in partnership with Chalmers University of Technology located Gothenburg, Sweden, and the Danish Technical University.

DBI has an additional two research projects that are focused on the aforementioned lack of knowledge in the field.

One is called ’FireTools’ and is an EU project being co-coordinated by DBI, and which is intended to strengthen the possibilities for calculating and simulating how various materials react to fire, so that it can easier to put new materials to use. FireTools has a budget of DKK 11.5 million, which will primarily be spent on five commercial Ph.D. projects over a period of four years. FireTools will be carried out in partnership with Lund University, in Sweden.

The other project is called ’MAT – Risk assessment of new materials’. The goal of MAT is to help the construction and maritime sectors adopt new and sustainable materials, so that Danish companies can benefit from the latest technological breakthroughs.

Among its other contributions to the project, DBI will develop modelling tools and simulate the fire safety properties of different materials. In this way, it will be possible to use a computer – and perhaps thereby avoid costly fire testing – to obtain documentation that will make it easier to bring new solutions to the market. MAT will be co-financed by the Danish Council for Technology and Innovation.


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