Dr Jim Glockling speaking

FPA Technical Director, Dr Jim Glockling tells industry gathering that modern methods of construction are creating the next fire safety problem in plain sight.

“Everyone is committing to a zero-carbon future, but it’s the caveats that aren’t necessarily being addressed. When you start to change the structure of buildings and how they may withstand fire, then all that we know about fire safety in buildings changes.”

During his plenary session on the second day of London Build Expo, he set out a future for construction which was, he argued, a more combustible one. Describing modern methods of construction, more commonly known as MMC, he said many approaches promote the use of materials such as wood and plastics and changes the way in which they are assembled. He expressed deep concern about the consequences.

“These new (combustible) methods of construction open up fire spreading voids. It’s a new and problematic mechanism, spreading fire out of sight of the fire and rescue service and the occupants. While this might not be a life safety issue, it is of great concern to fire protection and resilience.”

Traditional building methods, he said, saw contiguous building compartments with no void between them.

“In (combustible) modular construction, fire compartments float in a lattice of combustible material. We are now looking, if the fire stopping is not correct, at buildings being very porous to the spread of fire in tiny, inaccessible places and this is highly problematic to the fire and rescue service as they seek to suppress the fire.”

Moving on to talk about the role of building regulations and standards he reminded the audience that they addressed better the way buildings used to be built, rather than the way they are built today. “There’s a technological catch up that needs to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Referring to the ‘target-based’ approach of building regulations and the focus on delaying the fire for a time, Dr Glockling said: “Historically, the life safety ambition was achieved by using high performing materials like bricks and mortar, which are becoming increasingly unacceptable because of their carbon credentials. We are used to buildings surviving fire, being stable enough for the fire and rescue service to intervene and that there is something to recover at the end of it.”

Moving away from traditional materials, he argued, means that the structural resilience is no longer there. “That’s the challenge we are dealing with.” He added that resilience, in terms of property protection, doesn’t get a look in when it comes to building regulations.

He concluded that in an ideal world there would be balance between the needs for property protection with life safety and resilience to create green, compliant, safe, beautiful, strong, and insurable buildings.