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Siân Hughes, Director of External Affairs – Europe

When it comes to building safety, how fire reacts in the real world is all that matters

By Laura Croze
September 06, 2017

The Grenfell Tower fire in London in June has put fire safety regulations in the spotlight across the world.

The Grenfell Tower fire in London in June has put fire safety regulations in the spotlight across the world.

For many years Knauf Insulation has campaigned for better building fire safety regulation supporting organisations such as Fire Safe Europe as well as national fire safety coalitions.

But building fires continue to devastate lives with the Grenfell disaster the latest in a terrible legacy of tragedy.

In 2012, 19 people including 13 children were killed in a fire that swept through a Qatar shopping mall. A year later, 242 were killed in a nightclub fire in Brazil. In 2014, 32 pensioners died in a blaze in a Canadian care home. In 2015, 27 young people died in another nightclub fire in Bucharest.

Incredibly, since 2015’s New Year’s Eve blaze that engulfed a 63-storey hotel in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the country has endured fires in towers over a height of 34-storeys a staggering six times. The latest, this August, was the second blaze in two years for the 79-storey Torch Tower in the UAE emirate of Dubai

These terrible incidents and the shocking tragedy of the London Grenfell disaster reinforces our conviction at Knauf Insulation that the right solution for the right application is vital to create a safe and sustainable built environment. However, to make such an environment a reality it is essential that the entire building chain is driven by robust regulation. That means designing the risk of fire out of buildings from the start.

This approach is thankfully gathering momentum.

In the UAE, a new building code introduced in 2017 means that any insulation in a façade must be non-combustible on any building higher than 15 metres as well as in other public buildings such as malls, theme parks, school and hospitals. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, only non-combustible — or materials with limited combustibility — can be used on facades in high rise buildings. Serbia now requires the installation of non-combustible materials in the facades of all public buildings regardless of height.

Such regulation is highly prescriptive defined by a specific approach to achieve a very specific aim. But what about countries such as the UK where fire regulations are based on performance and where extensive testing on products, kits and systems establishes how a combination of materials are expected to perform in a fire?

At Knauf Insulation we put real performance at the heart of everything we do because it is the reality by which all buildings will be judged in the future. That is why we invest heavily in research and development — both in testing facilities and ground-breaking ‘real world’ research projects — to understand how our solutions will perform when it comes to thermal and acoustic performance.

But the question has to be asked: has real performance testing reached its limit when it comes to using it as a basis for building fire safety regulation?

No matter how sophisticated the technology and no matter how extensive the scale or range of modelling research, it is impossible for a test facility to assess the endless factors that could impact how a high risk large building will react in the event of a fire in the real world.

Issues such as poor installation workmanship, unexpected environmental factors, unpredictable occupant behaviour or simply the impact of ageing that chips away at buildings through constant modification could all increase fire risk.

For high-rise buildings or for any other building where evacuation is slow or difficult in the event of a fire (e.g. schools, hospitals, care homes), building fire safety cannot be left to regulation based on results from test facilities. The real-life risks are just too high. We must design the risk out of these buildings and that means only permitting non-combustible materials in these buildings from the start.

Because when it comes to building safety, how fire reacts in the real world is all that matters.