A green building

Fire Safety Challenges and Attributes of ‘Green’ Buildings

In recent years, there have been several major fire events, which have involved ‘green’ materials, systems, and features in buildings, including the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London involving combustible insulation; the Dietz & Watson cold storage warehouse in Delanco, New Jersey involving photovoltaic panels and combustible insulation; and the 2019 energy storage system (ESS) explosion and fire in Surprise, Arizona. While each of these incidents can be categorized in many ways, they (and many others) include materials, systems, and features that are considered ‘green’ or sustainable.

These events have prompted major advances (related to fire challenges) in ‘green’ and/or sustainable building materials, systems, and features in areas such as: research, regulatory requirements, engineering approaches, risk mitigation strategies, and firefighting tactics. Given the increased interest, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the research affiliate of NFPA, conducted a fundamental review of the aforementioned considerations to better understand the extent to which the unintended fire hazards and risks associated with ‘green’ attributes of buildings have been addressed, considered, or are being monitored as new incidents emerge.

The study found that while fire hazards and risks have been addressed in many regards, fire safety is still considered relatively late in the design process and when considered, efforts don’t always carry through to the operational phase of a building.  Further, the design of ‘green’ buildings is fundamentally rooted in sustainability -  environmental, economic, and social – not necessarily focused on fire resiliency. The Foundation’s review suggests there is a need to broaden our understanding of societal objectives and include resiliency into the context of ‘Sustainable and Fire Resilient’ (SAFR) buildings and communities.  The idea is to include risk and performance considerations into overall assessments of whether structures meet design criteria across all societal dimensions so that ‘safer’ solutions for buildings, fire service personnel, and the community are ultimately achieved.

The study developed a set of recommendations for future work to address gaps and to advance the concept of SAFR buildings and communities. They include:

  • Integrating ‘green’/sustainable attributes of buildings into fire incident reporting systems
  • Developing more robust and appropriate test methods, which yield engineering data, for assessment of material, component, and systems performance
  • Incorporating fire performance considerations into sustainable materials, technologies, research, and development features
  • Creating robust risk and performance assessment methods and tools, which are founded on broad expert stakeholder knowledge and experience, available data, and expert judgment where data are lacking
  • Designing better tools for holistic design and performance assessment, taking advantage of building informational modelling (BIM) and other technologies that are defining the future of the construction market
  • Transitioning to more holistic, socio-technical systems approaches for building regulatory systems, which consider the diversity of societal and market objectives for building design, construction, and lifetime operation
  • Furthering SAFR building concept development and articulation, as well as its societal and economic benefits

You can read more about this topic in two reports from the Foundation, the original 2012 report and the 2020 update

As noted above, there is certainly a lot of work to be done to advance fire safety considerations in ‘green’ buildings, so be sure to attend the Global Trends and Research one-day conference on November 2, 2021 to hear more about this study, its findings, and the SAFR concept.  The session on green buildings is just one of eight forward-thinking discussions being offered that day as part of the NFPA 125th Anniversary Conference Series (sessions are available for one year after the live date, via on-demand).

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Amanda Kimball
Executive Director, Fire Protection Research Foundation

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