Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on February 24, 2023.

Proactive Imperative

If the green building community won't come to us for guidance on fire safety concerns, what's stopping us from going to them—as soon as possible? 


A building that burns is not sustainable. This is a phrase I have used for more than a decade, as it has been clear to me and others that some of the technologies used in green buildings challenge our notions of fire safety design in ways that were not anticipated by existing codes and standards. 

I was reminded of this in November when I participated in Greenbuild 2022, one of the world’s largest events for green building professionals. I was part of a panel on wildfire and building resilience—the only session of the conference that addressed fire. Event participants describe themselves as a cutting-edge global community with the goal of improving sustainability, resilience, equity, and health and wellness in the spaces where we live, work, play, and learn. It was a good opportunity to engage with the green community and learn more about how it sees the buildings of the future and the products and technologies that will be used to get there. Photovoltaic panels were a hot topic. So was “decarbonization,” a term that came up often and covered everything from making buildings more energy efficient (and even energy producing) to replacing fossil-fuel technology with electric options powered by renewable energy. 

But there was a catch: none of the presenters mentioned fire. The only time it came up was when I asked them how these new technologies would impact a building’s fire performance. The answer was the same one I’ve heard for the last decade: fire is addressed in the codes, so if we fulfill the codes all is good. Everyone seemed to believe that the fire codes are somehow able to keep up with the advancements occurring in this new rapidly evolving green world. The reality is that only the introduction of tall timber buildings has resulted in significant changes to the codes. 

The problem doesn’t rest entirely with the green community—the challenge with the fire community is that we are reactive instead of proactive. There is a tradition of design by disaster in fire codes, where changes are implemented only after a problem has been demonstrated, usually in the form of a high-profile disaster and great loss of life. The Triangle fire in New York City in 1911 produced major changes in fire codes, for example, as did the Grenfell high-rise fire in London in 2017. By the time a problem is recognized by the fire community, it is already widespread in the built environment, and we are forced to play catch-up. If that sounds like a harsh assessment of the fire community, consider that I was the only fire person out of thousands of participants at the recent Greenbuild conference. To be fair, it’s not as though the fire community isn’t discussing the challenges of green buildings. NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation has published reports on the fire safety challenges of green buildings, and SFPE has launched its “Grand Challenges” initiative that addresses many of these issues.

 These and other initiatives will engage the fire community in further discussions about the challenges we are already starting to see with these new technologies. Unfortunately, we are keeping these discussions in our fire bubble—we are preaching to the fire choir. To be proactive and prevent disasters down the road, we must engage with the green community and not wait for them to come to us. We have to work with them to ensure that fire performance is a design parameter when developing new products, new technologies, and new green buildings. We need to critically examine how we test the fire performance of products and associated code requirements to ensure that they reflect the hazards we want to mitigate. 

Only through constructive dialogue with the green community can we ensure that the buildings of the future are green as well as fire resilient.

Birgitte Messerschmidt is director of the Applied Research Group at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler