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Of the Importance of Fire Resilience for Buildings’ Sustainability

Fire Safe Europe

24 Feb 2020

In this guest article, Fanny Guay, Chair of the Sustainable Buildings Advisory Panel, introduces the concept of “sustainable building” and stresses the dynamics between a buildings’ fire resilience and its sustainability. She also explains why it is necessary to include fire resilience into the current sustainable building rating schemes and in the appropriate policies.

There are several definitions of what a sustainable or a green building is. One of the definitions proposed is the practice of creating sustainable/high-performance structures that is a holistic approach to design, construction, and demolition to minimize the buildings’ impact on the environment, the occupants, and the community (Tidwell & Murphy, 2010). A sustainable building has also been defined as a building with high efficiency in the use of energy, water and materials, and reduced impacts on the health and the environment through better siting, design, construction, operation, maintenance and removal throughout its life cycle (Cassidy, 2003). Basically, to design sustainable buildings, we need to take into account not only materials in which the building is made but all other aspects affecting the environment and society. 

This resonates well with the concept of fire resilience. Though no official definition of this concept is available, we consider fire resilience as the ability of a system, community or society to adapt, transform and recover from a fire. Because fire has numerous effects on buildings, the society and the environment, it is more accurate to speak in terms of fire resilience. A good example of this concept is the Primark fire in Belfast in 2018, which left several people without a job, as well as businesses stopping their operations, a substantial loss of revenues for the city, and health and safety issues. 

Then why is fire resilience not a part of sustainable building rating schemes? Though some efforts have been made towards including fire resilience in schemes such as LEED and ReLi, it seems that it can be difficult to create a credit for fire resilience without a specific project.  Because fire resilience can be difficult to measure, you need a concrete example where it has been used. However, that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to get it included in one of the schemes. In the meantime, it is essential to have a focus on fire safety both for new build and renovation projects. 

With the climate agenda, sustainability in buildings has been a crucial part of the mitigation strategy established by the European Commission. Instruments such as the Energy Performance Building Directives (EPBD) are a good starting point to tackle both the energy efficiency need and the fire safety challenges.  Discussions between Member States should also be prioritized. The Fire Information Exchange Platform (FIEP) established by the Commission in 2017 has been an efficient instrument to stimulate the discussions and exchange of experiences between the European countries, but there is so much more to be done. What has been missing so far is a forum where all stakeholders can meet, discuss, share experiences and existing research, as well as develop more research. The newly established European Fire Safety Community could be the missing platform that we are looking for. 

Looking ahead, we are well aware that climate change, energy efficiency and sustainability will remain top priorities. Therefore it only makes sense that we not only carry on working on solving issues and promoting solutions but that we also make sure that we have included all the important elements such a fire resilience in these solutions. Buildings can only be sustainable if they do not negatively impact our society and therefore need to be fire resilient.

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