What is Sustainable Fire Engineering ?

Fire Losses, both direct and indirect, amount to a very significant percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in all economies, whether they are rich or poor
… and result in enormous environmental damage and social disruption.  Some losses have not yet been fully identified, e.g. in the case of environmental
damage … and others are not yet capable of being fully quantified, e.g. business interruption and brand damage.  Current fire statistics are unreliable.  In all situations, however, the waste of valuable human and natural resources caused by fire is unsustainable …

2015 Tianjin Fire Disaster in China

A Sustainable Human Environment cannot suffer, or tolerate, such enormous and wasteful physical devastation (including to the region’s air, water, soil),
and such extensive disruption of a city’s social and economic fabric.

Fire Engineering … including Fire Prevention, Fire Protection & Management in Buildings … is a major Multi-Billion Euro/Dollar component of the Construction Industrial Sector worldwide.

Unfortunately … a fundamental conflict exists between Sustainable Building Design Strategies and the fire safety responses adopted in today’s Conventional Fire Engineering.  To take a simple example: for cooling, heating or ventilation purposes in a Sustainable Building, it is necessary to take advantage of natural unobstructed patterns of air movement in that building.  On the other hand, fire engineers in private practice and control personnel in Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ’s) will demand that building spaces be tightly compartmented in order to limit the spread of fire and smoke … dramatically interfering with those natural patterns of air movement.

Unusual fire behaviour and a range of difficult fire safety issues (critical, in the case of firefighters) also arise from the Innovative Design Features (e.g.
‘green’ roofs, elaborate intelligent façades) and Building Products/Systems (e.g. photovoltaic panels) being installed in Sustainable Buildings … there are so many other words used to descibe these buildings: Green/PassivHaus/Bio/LEED/Low Carbon/BREEAM/Zero Carbon/+Energy/Smart …

Sustainable Building in Milano, Italy – Il Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest)

The fire hazard is enormous if, at any time during the long life cycle of these buildings, vegetation maintenance becomes inadequate or fails, and the vegetation dries out. Has sufficient consideration been given to fire safety in this case … and in many other Sustainable Buildings around the world ?  And in fire incidents which have actually occurred in Sustainable Buildings, frontline firefighters have faced unusual and life-threatening challenges.

A wide chasm separates the language and understanding of these two very different design disciplines.  As a result, the performance of Sustainable Buildings can be seriously compromised.  If, on the other hand, adequate independent technical control is absent on site … it is fire safety which is weakened or compromised.

And because, in most countries, the emphasis is placed on pre-construction design intent rather than the ‘real’ performance of the completed and occupied
building … these problems are ignored and remain hidden … until a serious fire breaks out !

Project: Vertical Eco-Cybernetic City by Ar. Orlando De Urrutia, Spain    Project: Vertical Eco-Cybernetic City by Ar. Orlando De Urrutia, Spain

To restrict and control external fire spread across a building façade … an external fire suppression system, e.g. water mist or deluge, must be considered … depending on the local context.


Sustainable Fire Engineering’s Aim

The Aim of Sustainable Fire Engineering is to dramatically reduce direct and indirect fire losses in the Human Environment (including the social, built,
economic, virtual, and institutional environments) … to protect the Natural Environment … and, within buildings, to ensure that there is an effective level
of Fire Safety for All, not just for Some.

Colour photograph showing the environmental impact of fire

Towards Zero Preventable Fires in the Built Environment !

In essence … Sustainable Fire Engineering must heavily front-load fire prevention and fire protection measures … above and beyond the very limited and flawed fire safety objectives mandated by current building codes and regulations.

SFE Design Solutions must be:

• Adapted to the local context, i.e. geography, climate variability and extremes, social need, economy, and culture
• Reliability-based
• Person-centred
• Resilient

The Sustainable Fire Engineer … working in a creative, ethical and professional manner as part of a collaborative team with other design disciplines …
elaborates Project-Specific Fire Engineering Design Objectives which properly protect the interests of society, his/her clients or client organizations, and
building users … with the overall goal of realizing and maintaining a Safe, Resilient and Sustainable Built Environment for All.

Sustainable Fire Engineering facilitates positive progress towards the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals & 169 Performance Targets, which were adopted in September 2015.  And it is only Sustainable Fire Engineering which can fast-track proper compliance with the Basic Requirements for Construction Works in EU Construction Products Regulation 305/2011(Annex I), specifically the interlinked Requirements 7, 2, 1, 3 & 4.

Bearing in mind the wide range of activities listed above and the complex targets to be attained … the Sustainable Fire Engineer will inevitably arrive at an important decision after one or two years in practice.  Is he/she more attracted to Sustainable Fire Engineering Design or Sustainable Fire Engineering
Science & Technology

Existing approaches to Fire Engineering Education and Training must be radically transformed to deal with the harsh realities of today … not with imaginary future challenges !


Firefighter Safety

Firefighters are a valuable social resource in every community … and should never be regarded as a ‘disposable economic asset’.  After the 2001 WTC 9-11 Attack in New York City … and the vast regional devastation caused by the 2015 Tianjin Fire Disaster in China … frontline firefighters must always be
supported by specialist structural engineering and hazard appraisal units.  And portable, light, reliable and accurate thermal imaging cameras must be recognized as a standard firefighting tool … not only to speed up and make more effective the search for building user survivors in an ongoing fire incident
… but to facilitate the search for injured firefighter colleagues.

Colour photograph showing a firefighter at the scene of a fire

Firefighter Safety can so easily and reasonably begin with Building Design !

Some Initial Design Responses Include:-

ensuring that buildings remain not just structurally stable, but Serviceable (even in seismic zones) … until every building user has reached a ‘place
of safety’ and all firefighters have reported back ‘safe’ to their unit commanders ;

installing Fire Suppression Systems, e.g. low pressure water mist, in housing and other residential building types ;

moving robust, hard-construction Cores (containing lifts/elevators, staircases and service ducts, etc.) in buildings, particularly in complex, tall and high-risk building types, away from the centre and towards the periphery … thereby ensuring that there are Alternative Routes of Fire Attack for firefighters on every floor/storey ;

designing circulation spaces in buildings, including corridors, staircases and door openings, to accommodate Contraflow … bearing in mind that clear, unobstructed width must actually mean clear and unobstructed ;

greatly improving Staircase Design in buildings (photographs have been posted on Twitter) so that they are safer for everybody to use during
occupant evacuation and firefighter access ;

in tall buildings, designing and managing every 20th floor/storey as a Fire Sterile Space, i.e. a Floor of Temporary Refuge, which is serviced by accessible, protected and reliable firefighter lifts/elevators … so that the maximum number of floors/storeys that firefighters have to negotiate on a
staircase is 10 ;

designing and installing Renewable Energy Systems in buildings so that they can be electrically isolated/shut down easily and safely … and they will
not hinder or impede firefighter access through the façade or roof of any building ;

providing readily identifiable Access Panels for firefighters in the more complex ‘smart’ building façades of sustainable buildings (photographs have
been posted on Twitter) ;  and

greatly improving the range and comprehensiveness of Fire Evacuation Information in buildings so that it is not only quickly and easily assimilated
by ALL building users … but also assists in preventing firefighter disorientation.

Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ’s) must acknowledge and accept that firefighters have two principal functions at a building fire scene:-

1. Rescuing people who are trapped, or who for some reason cannot independently evacuate, e.g. people with activity limitations waiting in areas of
rescue assistance … bearing in mind that building management systems are never 100% reliable ;  and

2. Fighting the fire, and confirming it is extinguished.

Firefighter Safety must, therefore, be included as a basic and essential Fire Safety Objective in All Building Codes and Regulations !


Fire Safety in Sustainable Residential Buildings

These ‘Sustainable’ Building Types are more popularly known as Green, PassivHaus/Passive House, +Energy, Low/Nearly Zero/Zero Carbon, LEED, Eco, Bio, BREEAM, or SMART, etc., etc., etc.

Reality – Reliability – Redundancy – Resilience !

Without a balanced, proper approach to Fire Safety in this type of modern, high-performance building … Building Occupant & Firefighter Safety is seriously threatened !

And if, in the event of any fire incident, the Occupants are asleep … or People with Activity Limitations are living there … that threat will be extremely grave indeed.  The PassivHaus Apartment Fire in Köln, Germany … on the night of 5 February 2013 … was a loud wake-up call ! In 2015, however, that strange and unusual fire behaviour encountered in the Köln Fire was reproduced in a series of Apartment Fire Tests carried out in Finland.  For more information about
these Tests, go to: https://blogs.aalto.fi/fire/pahahupa/

The Following is an Outline of What Must Change … NOW …

1. Party Walls, i.e. the walls separating one house from another, must be constructed of solid masonry, with a uniform and uncompromised thickness of
at least 200mm … plastered on both sides, not dry-lined, for adequate smoke resistance … and be continued above the roof covering for at least 300mm.

2. An effective Fire Detection System must be installed.  The conventional ‘package’ of one smoke detector per floor in the hallway and staircase of a standard 2 storey semi-detached house is nowhere near being adequate.

3. An effective Residential Fire Suppression System must be installed, e.g. low pressure water mist.

4. If there is a Controlled Ventilation System, either mechanical or natural, in the house (for the purposes of air quality, heat exchange and energy conservation), it must be linked to the fire detection system.  In the event of a fire incident, the Ventilation System must immediately cease operation,
and remain ‘fully open’.  This is in order to mitigate the build-up of high positive pressure, within a confined airtight space, caused by a developing fire …
and to provide an exhaust route for smoke and toxic gases … during the short period of time prior to activation of the fire suppression system.

5. Intermediate Timber Floors and Evacuation Routes, including fire resisting doorsets, must be reliably protected from fire and smoke.  The minimum period of fire and smoke resistance must be linked to local fire service support infrastructure.  In other words, the local fire services must be allowed sufficient time to arrive at the scene of a fire in strength … to search for any occupants still remaining in the fire building … and to bring the fire under control.

6. Uppermost Ceilings under a trussed timber roof structure, including any trap doorsets into the roof space, must be similarly and reliably protected from fire and smoke.  Once fire enters a roof space, the light trussed timber structure will collapse within a few minutes.

7. Front and Back Entrance/Egress Doors must be outward opening.  In the 2013 German PassivHaus Apartment Fire, the occupant found it extremely difficult to open inward opening doors and windows because of the high positive pressure caused by the developing fire.  This unusual phenomenon was confirmed in the 2015 Finnish Apartment Fire Tests, when much higher positive pressures were observed.

8. Internal Linings of External Walls must comprise 2 layers of plasterboard, with all joints staggered … steel fixed, at not more than 150mm centres.
Once fire breaches the internal lining of an external wall, the whole building will become involved in the fire.  Horizontal and vertical fire sealing behind
these linings, even if properly installed (!), are too little and too late.

9. Frontline Firefighters must be supported by specialist structural engineering and hazard appraisal units … and light/portable/reliable Thermal Imaging Cameras must be considered as a standard tool of firefighting.

In everyday practice … Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ’s), and the Organizations and Individuals responsible for the far-too-rapid construction of these innovative building types are either completely and blissfully ignorant, or callously and negligently in denial, about the seriously negative impacts on
Occupant & Firefighter Safety and Building Fire Protection.

BUT … slowly … more and more reliable evidence is being gathered !   Please visit the Links & Docs Page on: www.sfe-fire.eu … and also view this
Presentation on those very interesting 2015 Apartment Fire Tests in Finland: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ss_ONolzLY


In refurbishment projects where insulation is fixed to the internal surfaces of external walls and airtightness is improved … similar fire safety problems exist,
and they must be solved by reviewing the full checklist above.

SFE Topics for Examination & Discussion


Re-Interpreting ‘Sustainable Human & Social Development’

Sustainable Design … The creative and ethical Design response, in resilient built or wrought form, to the
concept of Sustainable Human & Social Development.

The Purpose of Design … is to realize, to implement, to transform …

How is the concept of Sustainability evolving ?


R&D and Fire Education Needs for Transformation to a Safe, Resilient & Sustainable Built Environment for All

Colour photograph (2) showing firefighting operations at a fire scene

Reliable Fire Statistics & Economics of Direct/Indirect Fire Losses


Sustainable Fire Engineering: Design, Construction & Operation/Management of Buildings
  1. Design Objectives beyond the minimal/common fire safety objectives in law …
    • life cycle effectiveness ;
    • accessibility for all
    • energy conservation and efficiency ;
    • environmental protection (including GHG’s) ;
    • property protection
    • firefighter safety and contraflow circulation in buildings
    • adequacy of fire service support infrastructure
    • adequacy of firefighting water supplies
    • sustainability
  2. Integration with the Sustainable Development / Climate Change Adaptation / Urban Resilience design agendas
    & Collaboration with other design disciplines
  3. Building Information Modelling (BIM) for design, construction and operation
  4. Facilities Management (FM)
  5. Building Management Systems (BMS)
  6. Accessible, user-friendly Electronic, Information and Communication Technologies (EICT’s)
  7. Design Competence, Quality of Construction, Independent Technical Control

Fire Incident Human Behaviour, Abilities & Perception – ‘Fire Safety For All’
  1. Fire Safety for All (focus on vulnerable users, i.e. people with activity limitations, in ‘real’ sustainable/green buildings)
  2. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychology (perception and use of buildings)
  3. Proprioception and understanding/movement within buildings
  4. Panic Attacks in emergency/very stressful situations
  5. ‘Intuitive and Obvious’ design for fire safety in buildings

Colour photograph (1) showing firefighting operations at a fire scene

Firefighting in Sustainable/Green/Innovative/Smart Buildings
  1. Unusual Fire Behaviour observed in ‘real’ sustainable/green buildings
  2. Sustainable Firefighting strategies and tactics
  3. Dealing with innovative building design features, products and systems
  4. Contraflow Circulation in buildings
  5. Assisted Building User Evacuation by firefighters
  6. Innovative firefighter rescue techniques
  7. Building design for firefighter safety


Sustainable & Intelligent Passive/Active Fire Protection Measures
  1. Responding creatively, flexibly and adaptively to Sustainable Design
  2. Life cycle analysis, costing and effectiveness of products, systems and devices
  3. Energy conservation and efficiency
  4. Environment friendliness
  5. Fire testing & Performance in full-scale reality
  6. Competent Installation & Maintenance/Servicing
  7. Research and Development
  8. Showing product/system Fitness for Intended Use

Colour photograph showing structural collapse during a fire

Structural Reliability in Fire Conditions & Subsequent Cooling Phase
  1. Fire Serviceability Limit States (serviceability during a fire, and afterwards)
  2. Steel, concrete, timber, and composite structures
  3. Robustness – Reliability – Resilience
  4. Structural joints and junctions
  5. Interface between Structure and Fabric (non-structure)
  6. Fire Testing & Performance in full-scale reality
  7. Progressive/Travelling/Moving Fires in Large Building Spaces
  8. Fire-Induced Progressive Damage …

    The sequential growth and intensification of structural deformation and displacement, beyond fire engineering design parameters,
    and the eventual failure of elements of construction in a building – during a fire and the ‘cooling phase’ afterwards – which,
    if unchecked, will result in disproportionate damage, and may lead to total building collapse.

  9. Disproportionate Damage …

    The failure of a building’s structural system: (i) remote from the scene of an isolated overloading action;
    and (ii) to an extent which is not in reasonable proportion to that action.


Fire Engineering after 2001 WTC 9-11 Attack, 2008 Mumbai & 2015/2016 Paris & Brussels Hive Attacks
  1. Reality – Reliability – Redundancy
  2. ‘Intuitive and Obvious’ design for fire safety in buildings
  3. Design for contraflow circulation in buildings
  4. Building Core and Evacuation Staircase design
  5. Evacuation Strategies
  6. Use of lifts/elevators for evacuation
  7. Design for multi-stage and ‘all-out-now’ evacuation strategies
  8. Role of fire engineers in the design and construction processes
  9. Review of 2005 & 2008 NIST Recommendations