Published on November 29, 2022.

INTERNATIONAL
Brave New Systems-Based World

Rapid urbanization. A proliferation of green technologies. The impacts of climate change. A widely respected fire safety expert argues that these are just a few of the emerging worldwide challenges to the built environment that call for a new, systems-based, performance-oriented approach to regulation.


BY BRIAN MEACHAM 


I
most countries around the world, the regulatory systems addressing building safety remain relatively static. The pressures on those systems, however, are dynamic and often in a state of rapid change. Our regulatory systems and procedures have become enshrined, and we generally think they work okay—until they don’t.

Historically, system disruptions have occurred in the form of rare but tragic events. In the United States, we can look at a range of fire events—the Triangle factory, Our Lady of Angels School, the MGM Grand Hotel, September 11, 2001, The Station nightclub—that influenced changes in our regulations. We declare victory and move on. But what exactly have we achieved?

We continue to see tragic fires in a range of venues worldwide, from apartment buildings in England to nightclubs in Thailand to factories in Bangladesh, that echo previous events. In the US, for example, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980 was characterized by significant smoke spread that impacted occupant safety and was the primary factor in the deaths of 85 people. A similar dynamic occurred in January at the Twin Parks North West high-rise apartment building in the Bronx, where smoke spread via the exit stairwells was likely a critical factor in the deaths of 17 people. Smoke spread is just one example of the problems that we know very well and that can be thoroughly addressed in new construction under up-to-date codes and standards. Even so, it remains a problem that plagues us in the form of existing buildings that are arguably underregulated, under-maintained, and often inadequately managed.

But this is only part of the challenge. Significant fires occur around the world stemming from new technologies that have been rapidly introduced to the built environment, for which in some cases the fire safety performance is not yet well known or understood. These technologies include photovoltaic systems on buildings, energy storage systems, combustible exterior cladding systems, and large lightweight timber-framed buildings under construction—all of which have been components of recent major fires around the world that have resulted in fatalities and injuries and hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss. Some of these technologies are driven by sustainability policy objectives that are implemented to stem the ever-growing climate-change catastrophe. It is not that sustainability policies are bad—on the contrary, they are essential—but rather that our regulatory system does an abysmal job of considering buildings as complex, holistic entities. With this big-picture concept in mind, it is important that we regard structures as integrated “systems of systems.”


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Furthermore, the changes to our climate are triggering an array of intensifying natural events, from extreme drought to violent storms to an expanding global wildfire crisis. It can be argued that the worldwide challenges associated with climate change are overtaking whatever regulatory progress we’ve achieved in our efforts to make the built environment more resilient. From a fire perspective, wildland fire—notably its impact on the wildland/urban interface, or WUI—has rapidly become a significant global problem. In recent years, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Siberia, the US, and several European countries have seen record-breaking fires, both in magnitude and impact, a trend that only seems to keep growing. In the face of deaths and injuries and billions of dollars of property loss caused by these fires, it has become painfully apparent that much of the built environment in the WUI is grossly unprepared for a significant fire event.

In many of these scenarios, it is the most vulnerable people in a particular population that are most at risk. In part this is because they possess neither the resources to mitigate risks nor the political voice to make themselves heard. Fire is a significant hazard to many people in low- and middle-income countries, at home and at work. There are many reasons for this risk, from shelters assembled with combustible materials to open-flame cooking and heating to illegal and/or patently unsafe electrical systems. But many of these problems are not limited to low- and middle-income countries—they are arguably part of the so-called “invisible fire problem” in the US and many other wealthy nations. This includes millions of people who live in underregulated buildings, the elderly (who constitute a rapidly growing demographic), people of varied abilities, and the homeless, who face fire challenges similar to residents of informal settlements in low- and middle-income countries.

Many of these issues are complex problems that require new thinking and collaborative efforts to address effectively. In too many cases, the components of our regulatory systems are developed in silos that rely on subject-matter experts while often missing the bigger picture. We need to step out of our current siloed thinking and consider the built environment—and our regulation of it—as a complex and adaptive mix of human, technological, and institutional factors, or what is known as a sociotechnical system. Furthermore, as the WUI expands and the number of people worldwide at risk from wildfire increases, we need to broaden our thinking and apply an ecological context to that sociotechnical system, one that can provide us with an effective new approach for building, infrastructure, and land-use regulation.

As countless tragic examples demonstrate, we cannot afford to remain merely reactive to events, solving the last problem while failing to adequately consider the next. We no longer have time for that. We need to consider a new performance-based approach, one that builds on the foundation provided by existing modes of regulation—including codes and standards—to address the complex global challenges we face more effectively, now and in the years to come.

In most countries around the world, the regulatory systems addressing building safety remain relatively static. The pressures on those systems, however, are dynamic and often in a state of rapid change. Our regulatory systems and procedures have become enshrined, and we generally think they work okay—until they don’t.

Historically, system disruptions have occurred in the form of rare but tragic events. In the United States, we can look at a range of fire events—the Triangle factory, Our Lady of Angels School, the MGM Grand Hotel, September 11, 2001, The Station nightclub—that influenced changes in our regulations. We declare victory and move on. But what exactly have we achieved?

We continue to see tragic fires in a range of venues worldwide, from apartment buildings in England to nightclubs in Thailand to factories in Bangladesh, that echo previous events. In the US, for example, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980 was characterized by significant smoke spread that impacted occupant safety and was the primary factor in the deaths of 85 people. A similar dynamic occurred in January at the Twin Parks North West high-rise apartment building in the Bronx, where smoke spread via the exit stairwells was likely a critical factor in the deaths of 17 people. Smoke spread is just one example of the problems that we know very well and that can be thoroughly addressed in new construction under up-to-date codes and standards. Even so, it remains a problem that plagues us in the form of existing buildings that are arguably underregulated, under-maintained, and often inadequately managed.

But this is only part of the challenge. Significant fires occur around the world stemming from new technologies that have been rapidly introduced to the built environment, for which in some cases the fire safety performance is not yet well known or understood. These technologies include photovoltaic systems on buildings, energy storage systems, combustible exterior cladding systems, and large lightweight timber-framed buildings under construction—all of which have been components of recent major fires around the world that have resulted in fatalities and injuries and hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss. Some of these technologies are driven by sustainability policy objectives that are implemented to stem the ever-growing climate-change catastrophe. It is not that sustainability policies are bad—on the contrary, they are essential—but rather that our regulatory system does an abysmal job of considering buildings as complex, holistic entities. With this big-picture concept in mind, it is important that we regard structures as integrated “systems of systems.”

Furthermore, the changes to our climate are triggering an array of intensifying natural events, from extreme drought to violent storms to an expanding global wildfire crisis. It can be argued that the worldwide challenges associated with climate change are overtaking whatever regulatory progress we’ve achieved in our efforts to make the built environment more resilient. From a fire perspective, wildland fire—notably its impact on the wildland/urban interface, or WUI—has rapidly become a significant global problem. In recent years, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Siberia, the US, and several European countries have seen record-breaking fires, both in magnitude and impact, a trend that only seems to keep growing. In the face of deaths and injuries and billions of dollars of property loss caused by these fires, it has become painfully apparent that much of the built environment in the WUI is grossly unprepared for a significant fire event.

In many of these scenarios, it is the most vulnerable people in a particular population that are most at risk. In part this is because they possess neither the resources to mitigate risks nor the political voice to make themselves heard. Fire is a significant hazard to many people in low- and middle-income countries, at home and at work. There are many reasons for this risk, from shelters assembled with combustible materials to open-flame cooking and heating to illegal and/or patently unsafe electrical systems. But many of these problems are not limited to low- and middle-income countries—they are arguably part of the so-called “invisible fire problem” in the US and many other wealthy nations. This includes millions of people who live in underregulated buildings, the elderly (who constitute a rapidly growing demographic), people of varied abilities, and the homeless, who face fire challenges similar to residents of informal settlements in low- and middle-income countries.

Many of these issues are complex problems that require new thinking and collaborative efforts to address effectively. In too many cases, the components of our regulatory systems are developed in silos that rely on subject-matter experts while often missing the bigger picture. We need to step out of our current siloed thinking and consider the built environment—and our regulation of it—as a complex and adaptive mix of human, technological, and institutional factors, or what is known as a sociotechnical system. Furthermore, as the WUI expands and the number of people worldwide at risk from wildfire increases, we need to broaden our thinking and apply an ecological context to that sociotechnical system, one that can provide us with an effective new approach for building, infrastructure, and land-use regulation.

As countless tragic examples demonstrate, we cannot afford to remain merely reactive to events, solving the last problem while failing to adequately consider the next. We no longer have time for that. We need to consider a new performance-based approach, one that builds on the foundation provided by existing modes of regulation—including codes and standards—to address the complex global challenges we face more effectively, now and in the years to come.

THE NEED FOR A HOLISTIC VIEW

For nearly three decades, I have been involved in leading the charge for performance-based codes and fire safety design in the US, and I have participated in the global dialog on these issues. I was exposed to concepts of systems thinking as a fire protection engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in the 1980s, and I was fortunate to serve on the NFPA 550, Guide to the Fire Safety Concepts Tree, committee in the late 1980s. At the 1992 Firesafety Design in the 21st Century conference, organized by WPI professor David Lucht, I began learning about performance-based design and building code concepts. I developed this interest further in the early 1990s as a fire safety engineering consultant in Switzerland, and I carried my knowledge and interests in these areas to my new role as the first-ever technical director for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) in 1995. In that role, I undertook research on performance-based design for fire and the incorporation of risk concepts into performance-based building codes. I also participated in the performance code development initiatives conducted by NFPA and the International Code Council (ICC).

Based on this body of work, I thought we were well on our way toward implementing both performance-based building codes and performance-based design for fire. I was wrong.

The regulatory and design communities largely viewed performance approaches as ways to develop alternatives as compared with the intent, which is to demonstrate that objectives are met. This mindset assumes that the status quo is adequate and perpetuates the change-by-disaster approach, all while considering risk-informed approaches as too difficult to accept. The result is an ongoing string of fires that occur worldwide because of inadequate considerations of lessons we didn't learn, fires involving emerging technologies that we should have proactively investigated instead of waiting for the outcomes, and climate-influenced wildfires that were not a consideration until they were. Through it all we are missing a necessary, societally responsible focus on our most vulnerable populations.

This got me thinking about why nations experience recurring fire safety challenges and gaps and how we can make building regulation and design practices more proactive. The common factors across this diversity of events and systems are the interaction of people, technology, and institutions—the fundamental concept behind sociotechnical systems (STS) theory, safety systems concepts, and systems thinking in general. Our inability to adequately address all three components leads to failure. Additionally, a comprehensive STS approach needs to have all stakeholders engage in a discussion on how risk can be a useful basis for performance. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has operated successfully with risk-informed performance-based regulations for years. Seismic design is significantly risk based, even in our current building codes. Moving to a sustainable and fire-resilient built environment will require applications of STS thinking that are formed around successful risk characterization.

The current phase of my STS work began in 2016, when I was awarded a Fulbright Global Scholar award. The object of my research was to understand and advance performance-based building regulatory systems, and the award supported a total of six months of research in Japan, Spain, and Sweden. In my Fulbright application, I suggested that a next-generation performance-based building regulatory system structure was needed: one that was more risk-informed, holistic, and adaptive, where potential failure modes can be better identified, minimized, or eliminated, and where emerging pressures and threats can be more nimbly addressed. I argued that such a system would benefit from the experiences of countries with performance-based building regulatory systems and the changes that had been made to those systems. I was able to leverage my Fulbright as part of a sabbatical from WPI, and I expanded my research by another year to include Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Scotland. I also began working as a senior consultant to the World Bank on the Building Regulation for Resilience program, which looked at ways to enhance building regulatory capacity in low- and middle-income countries. It was an incredible two years of learning and gaining a greater appreciation for differences and similarities among cultures, regulatory systems, and practices.

A significant part of my research and consultation during that period involved meeting with stakeholders and conducting interviews and surveys. I was trying to understand what was working and what wasn’t, and what might be changed to make the regulatory systems more robust. There were many consistent themes, starting with the observation that every building regulatory system is more complex than it needs to be. Every building regulation is developed in a silo; subject matter experts are needed to address discipline-specific issues, but holistic integration is lacking. Every market is innovating faster than the regulatory system can adapt, in part because of the regulatory structure, but also because the competencies of practitioners and authorities are often a step or two behind the market. Societal objectives such as sustainability are driving regulations and design, sometimes to the detriment of building fire performance. Climate change is creating pressures that are not being equally addressed; the impact of some hazards is being attenuated while others seem to be amplified. The housing sector, especially for vulnerable populations—arguably the most at-risk from fire—is under supported. Rapid urbanization, especially in developing nations in Africa and Asia, is adding pressure to an already stressed system.

To effectively address these problems and inequities, we need to consider the built environment as a complex, adaptive, sociotechnical system. This applies to building components, buildings, the building regulatory system, and entire communities.

At the building component level, exterior façade systems are a good example. These systems attracted worldwide attention in 2017, when the Grenfell Tower, a high-rise apartment building in London, caught fire; the highly combustible foam insulation inside the exterior façade panels contributed to the rapid spread of the fire up, around, and into the building, and 72 people died in the blaze. These systems need to provide protection from the exterior environment while maintaining interior environments and avoiding fire or structural hazards. Failure to consider any one of these attributes in the design, manufacturing, installation, or use could lead to system failure. If the design standards do not consider these attributes at the point of installation, and/or the building regulatory system does not address these issues through the lifetime of the building, we risk events such as the fires that destroyed Grenfell Tower and other structures around the world covered in combustible exterior cladding. As part of the building regulatory systems component, the competencies of practitioners and authorities, and the standards and guidelines they use for design, installation, and review, are critical.

These challenges scale to buildings, building regulatory systems, and communities. At the building level, the complexity of interconnected systems requires holistic and systems thinking to avoid unintended consequences. A photovoltaic system that provides sustainable energy should not present an unnecessary fire risk; similarly, smoke or fire door systems should take into account the fact that occupants may want them open in non-fire events, so designing them to facilitate both normal use and emergency use is critical. For building regulatory systems, if experts in each regulatory area are working solely in their own silos of expertise, focused only on their piece of the puzzle, the overall performance of the building as a whole may suffer. As a complex system of systems, buildings must function holistically. Simply taking parts that may perform well on their own, such as the fire performance of doors under a standard fire test, and assuming they will function as expected when integrated into a more complex sociotechnical system—where the normal condition is to have the doors open to facilitate movement, meaning they may be inadvertently blocked open when a fire occurs—can lead to disaster.

THE ECOLOGICAL FACTOR

As if these challenges aren’t enough, the additional variable of climate-driven threats to the built environment only underscores the need for immediate action.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, billion-dollar disaster events are increasing each year, with 2020 leading the way. The current year isn’t far behind; some early estimates of the losses inflicted by Hurricane Ian exceed $100 billion. Wildfires are a growing component of these climate-driven losses. Across the US, wildfires burned nearly 10.3 million acres during 2020, exceeding the 2000–2010 average by 51 percent. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has estimated the total annualized economic burden of wildland fire in the US alone to be between $71 billion and $347 billion.

At the community level, the loss of entire neighborhoods or towns—such as the destruction of Paradise, California, in the 2018 Camp Fire, or the communities leveled by the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado—is even more concerning. These fires and others are examples of community-scale conflagrations, a type of building-to-building fire spread that many thought had been eliminated more than a century ago. With continued and aggressive WUI development, however, this threat has re-emerged, with tens of millions of homes and other structures nationwide placed squarely in harm’s way. WUI conflagrations illustrate how the integration of urban planning, forest management, and other mechanisms, in addition to a holistic approach to building protection, are needed to achieve resilience in the face of this new wildfire reality.


Events like the destruction of Paradise, California, in the 2018 Camp Fire illustrate the hazards that exist when a problematic built environment encounters an ecological force such as wildfire.

This is where a socio-ecological-technical system, or SETS, approach is especially useful. Fundamentally, SETS considers the interactions between society, technology, and the environment as a complex, dynamic system. In doing so, it provides a framework for exploring how technology influences the relationship between people and the natural world, and the consequences associated with that relationship. This includes a consideration of how emergent SETS-related pressures are linked, and how technical intervention, intentional and unintentional, may result in ambiguous outcomes and feedbacks. Such considerations force us to expand our concept of buildings and regulatory systems to include the natural environment as an inextricable component of the “system of systems.”

In many ways, this is already well understood in the built environment. Design that accounts for earthquakes, floods, and wind is fundamentally based on the natural hazard and a human-desired building system resilience. However, we have not adequately integrated this thinking into our efforts to mitigate the impact of wildland fire on the built environment, especially in the WUI. While significant funding is invested in understanding and reducing wildfire threats, virtually none is invested in wildfire-resilient built environments, including buildings, infrastructure, and communities. And despite the ongoing threat, some communities that have experienced devastating losses to wildfire refuse to adopt or enforce new building regulations that would better protect their rebuilt neighborhoods from the wildfires that will surely return. As a result, we wrestle with the same types of challenges identified in assessing buildings and building regulatory systems from a STS perspective.

A systems approach with an ecological perspective is seriously lacking in most considerations of community resilience to wildland fire. We are not sufficiently addressing emerging problems such as climate-influenced drought, for example, or the impact that warming trends are having on the fuel loads that contribute to the size and ferocity of so many wildfires. The focus on risk reduction is out of balance, with more emphasis on forest management and costly fire suppression efforts than on the protection of buildings and infrastructure. As a result, we see larger and larger impacts on the built environment, even as considerable resources are spent trying to manage the wildfire problem.

A SET OF MODEST PROPOSALS

These are not insurmountable problems. A lot of very smart, dedicated people are focused on trying to make the world a safer place from fire. Important regulatory structures, including the standards development process, already provide a foundation for adopting a more performance-based approach to making our built environments more resilient to emerging hazards and threats of all types. With a more holistic, systems-based mindset, we can achieve that. There are seven key steps that I believe can get us there:

> Embrace the systems approach.

It is essential that we stop thinking and working in silos and recognize that achieving a sustainable and fire-resilient built environment is a complex systems challenge. Policies, regulations, and codes and standards all need to work in an integrated, holistic, systems-based manner. Planning and design of communities, infrastructure, and buildings need to embrace this approach as well, and should begin by asking whether we are solving the right problems using the proper set of tools.

The systems approach is not a new concept. NFPA 550, Guide to the Fire Safety Concepts Tree, first introduced in the 1980s, is an example of a systems approach. It looks at the fire safety problem holistically—management of the building, ignition prevention, and management of fire impacts—and how the different components interact. It can be used as a tool to guide code and standards development, design development and review, fire safety management of facilities, and fire safety education and training. While not strictly an STS framework, NFPA 550 is a useful starting point for systems-oriented discussions and could serve as a useful launching point for an NFPA guide to STS for building fire safety. In Australia, the fire safety concepts tree forms part of the Bushfire Verification Method Handbook published by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB), a document that guides decisions on building construction in bushfire-prone areas.

Additionally, the NFPA codes and standards development process already engages a broad cross-section of stakeholders, which is another critical aspect of the STS/SETS approach. There may be opportunities within this process to expand the stakeholder groups and the perspectives they bring to standards development. The role of technology-specific standards—currently very targeted—could be reconsidered to create more flexible, expandable tools to apply to systems-based solutions.

> Adopt a systems context for evaluating sustainable and fire-resilient built environments.

This might require the biggest shift in thinking about how we achieve tolerable levels of fire safety compared to current practice. We need to broaden our perspectives on the hazards, threats, and impacts based on our restructured goals and objectives. Adopting system safety thinking means moving from a focus on the likelihood of a specific scenario to how the system can prevent unwanted outcomes.

The wildfire problem is a good example. NFPA has developed standards focused on wildland fire and mitigation of the fire threat in the WUI, including NFPA 1140, Standard for Wildland Fire Protection, and NFPA 1142, Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting. In addition, NFPA’s Firewise USA® program, a grassroots community-based wildfire preparedness initiative that serves as a framework for neighbors to learn about their fire risks and take mitigative actions to protect their communities, now includes more than 1900 participating communities. Together, these standards and programs touch upon many SETS aspects. However, the adoption and use of these tools is variable and depends significantly on local jurisdictions; they may also be subject to other local, state, or federal legislation, which can impact their ability to work holistically. The various activities focus on different stakeholder groups, which can potentially result in incomplete communication between groups.

An example of an effort that seeks to create a more robust SETS approach for wildfire is the DRYADS project underway in the European Union. This effort recognizes the socio-ecological transition that is underway and the need for a more resilient and informed community. DRYADS aims to create a holistic fire management platform that optimizes socio-technological resources across all phases of wildfire. New approaches to real-time risk evaluation, fire-adapted communities, insurance incentives, and fire-resilient buildings and infrastructure are explored. Expanding our approach in the US to mirror such aims could prompt NFPA codes and standards committees to think more specifically about tolerable risk levels in a multi-hazard/multi-objective sense, and how we avoid the intolerable events. All of these would be helpful steps toward developing a more robust wildfire SETS in the US.

> Embrace innovative and emerging fire safety technologies.

Embracing a systems approach also means embracing relevant new technologies in an appropriate and robust manner. We have building information modelling, for example, to help us with building design. A wide range of building health sensors, from structure to indoor air quality, already exist, and more are under development. Environmental sensors can help provide input to wildfire modeling. These technologies are underutilized because the prevailing siloed approach to technologies and systems adds costs and likely misses opportunities. This needs to change. The codes-and-standards-making process needs to be nimble enough to accommodate emerging technologies, perhaps through expanding the acceptance of performance-based approaches.

> Consider the appropriate balance of risk and safety as bases of performance objectives, criteria, and evaluation.

Fundamentally, risk is about making decisions with incomplete information under uncertain conditions. While there is a strong desire to create solutions that follow simple prescriptions, that approach will never be adequate to address all contingencies and can inadvertently result in unintended consequences when disruptions occur. We must be more willing to acknowledge that we do not have all the solutions now for issues that emerge in the future, especially when we lack a long-term perspective, such thinking of building performance over the entire life of a building. Again, this is an issue that NFPA codes and standards committees could address by considering more risk-informed approaches to safety problems. We do not know everything that could happen, just as we don’t know every technology or approach that could mitigate those unknown problems. Not everything in the codes can or should be reduced to single measurements; it is important to develop additional tools within codes and standards that are flexible enough to accommodate new risk-informed, system-based approaches.

> Place as much emphasis on assuring continued delivery of a building’s performance in use as there is on design at the time of approval.

Giving these equal weight is essential if we want to create a truly sustainable and fire-resilient built environment. Building regulation and the buildings that result from that regulation should be user-centered. Unfortunately, the current paradigm is largely fashioned around regulatory compliance, and there are considerable challenges in that system to achieve design performance throughout the life of a building. This increases fire risk and does so disproportionately to those who are most socially and economically vulnerable. Building codes and standards should be modified to consider and address explicitly how buildings will be used throughout their normal lives, not just at the moment a certificate of occupancy is granted. Concepts such as outcome-based performance standards in energy and functional recovery objectives for structures could be incorporated into NFPA codes and standards.

> Place more emphasis on the human element.

A core component of STS in particular, but also SETS, is the human element. This important aspect requires additional emphasis if we hope to enhance the performance of our building regulatory system. We must recognize and address the risks within the system associated with inadequately prepared, unqualified, noncompetent, and illegal actors. To one degree or another, these people are responsible for poor design and construction, inadequate maintenance, illegal housing, and other market failures that place people at risk. The regulatory system needs to take on this challenge. Within the NFPA codes and standards development process, this might include specifically addressing the expertise and competency required on the part of the people who are applying these documents, especially where expert judgment is required due to high levels of uncertainty and variability.

> Expand the number of participants involved in the performance discussion.

At a regulatory level, and often at the design level, decisions regarding building or infrastructure performance are made in subject-matter silos. Each silo is occupied by experts who are deeply knowledgeable in their own narrow areas but too often lack a comprehensive consideration of the performance of the integrated system as a whole. This can be observed in community planning and zoning as well. While this is arguably done to take advantage of subject-matter expertise, the absence of holistic considerations of how performance goals should be described, defined, quantified, evaluated, and assured can result in unintended consequences. Expanding the participants in this process to include more big-picture perspectives complements the subject matter expertise and is an important component in the development of more flexible, risk-based regulation.

Some of those perspectives could come from members of the lay public, which is often not a source of contributors to the regulatory process. Unintended bias and barriers to participation need to be removed. There may be opportunities here for including more of the lay public in the codes and standards development process; as committee members, they could bring their varied experiences to the table and provide valuable context for technical expertise. This could also be an especially important opportunity to introduce more diversity into the process, especially from historically underserved and vulnerable populations.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

While I believe that these approaches are attainable and would ultimately be effective, I also recognize that they may not be readily embraced by some in the building safety community. Bringing the doubters into the conversation is an essential step in clarifying the big-picture needs of the built environment.

The challenge is best illustrated in work I undertook for the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB). I was asked to quantify individual and societal risk for use in the National Construction Code (NCC), and I reviewed various approaches for how quantified risk values are used in regulations. I proposed that a regulatory benchmark could be set such that the maximum contribution to risk to life, as related to all building features regulated by the NCC, be no more than 1 percent of the background risk for new construction and no more than 10 percent of the background risk for existing buildings. This was a good example of using STS and SETS concepts to rethink approaches to regulations, codes and standards, and design guidance to achieve a sustainable and fire resilient building environment.

The core of these systems approaches includes understanding and embracing risk. This does not necessarily mean that fire risk assessments or risk-based fire design are explicitly required. However, it does require comprehensive risk characterization—who is at risk, from what, and how—and it needs to focus on the risks to occupants of buildings and citizens of communities rather than on the financial risks faced by building developers and owners, or by infrastructure providers. Far too often, a fire risk assessment is driven by reducing the risk to the entity required to undertake the assessment, such as an owner, and not on those directly exposed to or bearing the risk, such as residents of a high-rise apartment. This can be a difficult shift for some in the building safety community, but it is incredibly important and a good example of the direction we hope to move with the help of systems thinking. As I learned in Australia, though, not everyone is ready to move.

The idea of using risk as a basis for fire performance requirements in buildings was discussed and consulted on widely in Australia, and the ABCB was willing to entertain its use. Handbooks on how to work with the approach were developed, along with representative examples. The concepts were peer reviewed. Disciplines that understood the concepts, like structural engineering, embraced the idea. Others, like fire engineering, remained hesitant, saying they weren’t ready or lacked the data necessary to embrace the approach. Ironically, some of these statements came from people involved in a recent research project on fire safety engineering at a prominent Australian university—the same institution that in 1989 recommended in part that risk assessment models be used as a basis for identifying cost-effective combinations of fire safety subsystems for building design. More than three decades ago, the use of risk was new thinking. In 2022, it should not be so. In the end, pushback from the fire community prevented the approach from going forward, in part by the community’s inability or unwillingness to view the problem through a wider sociotechnical lens.

I understand that there will be a learning curve for all of this, and that there will be setbacks. History is filled with examples demonstrating that a change in thinking is perhaps the most difficult kind of change to undertake. At the same time, it is encouraging to see so many aspects of society, including codes and standards developers, working hard to address the persistent and emerging challenges facing the built environment all over the world. We have built a significant foundation of experience and expertise from which to address these problems, and we no longer need to be constrained by our silos of expertise, policy, and historical precedent. And we don’t have to wait until the next disaster to act.

BRIAN MEACHAM, managing principal of Meacham Associates in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, has worked with governments, NGOs, and corporations around the world. His professional activities include chairing the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Risk Assessment Methods. Above photographs: Getty Images