Why sprinklers should be considered as part of building design and construction

As it stands, sprinklers are not a legal requirement in commercial buildings. In residential buildings their provision is based on the height of the building, neglecting all other fire safety factors. Here, FPA Principal Consultant Dale Kinnersley explains why this approach can leave lives and buildings at risk, and why changes must be made.

There is a lack of comprehensive regulation over sprinklers, despite robust findings over their effectiveness. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) found that in incidents in both residential and non-residential buildings, sprinklers work as intended in 94% of cases, and control or extinguish fires in 99% of cases.

Sprinkler provision should also include commercial and industrial buildings and be considered on a total risk basis, not just based on height. Currently, only new high-rise buildings over 11 metres in height require sprinklers to be installed. A more holistic approach is needed that considers the building’s function (office, retail, warehousing, residential, etc.), who occupies the building, storage of goods (combustibility) within the building, how the goods are stored, how it has been built, materials used in construction, what is the local Fire and Rescue Service response time, and how these fit into the fire strategy should be considered. While, in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, fire safety in high-rise buildings has moved up the agenda, we must consider the whole of the built environment and what implications a devastating fire within a local community can have.

Protecting vulnerable people

The addition of a sprinkler system is especially important in buildings where occupants are vulnerable and may require more time to exit the building. The installation of sprinklers can increase the time available for evacuation and reduce the numbers who require evacuation. Buildings such as schools and hospitals are also vital infrastructure that, if lost to a fire, would have a significant impact on the wider community, not to mention the environmental impact on the local area.

Despite a growing acceptance of the value of automatic fire sprinklers, they are not mandatory in new school buildings in the UK and, as a result, their adoption is very low in England and Northern Ireland.

This is despite research from Zurich Municipal – one of the leading insurers of schools – who’ve identified that schools are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a fire than other types of commercial buildings. A 2020 study by Zurich found that only 2% of schools had sprinkler protection in place, and according to official figures, only 15% of all new schools built and opened in the UK since 2011 have been fitted with an automatic fire sprinkler system. Fire and rescue services in the UK attend an average of 1,500 school fires each year, which cause disruption to the education of approximately 90,000 pupils.

Research from the NFCC proves that sprinklers are highly effective and provide strong fire safety protection as part of a fire safety package. This has been recognised by Scotland and Wales who have implemented stricter measures across many building types to make their communities safer from fire, including making sprinklers mandatory in all new and substantially refurbished schools.

The NFCC has called on the UK government to remove the disparity in sprinkler regulations across the UK to ensure that all newly built schools will be protected, and the FPA fully supports this position.

Although the merits of sprinklers in a hospital environment are clear, the government’s fire standards for the NHS do not mandate the installation of sprinklers. As a result, not all new build hospitals have sprinklers installed, and almost no mental health trusts have sprinkler systems.

The safety benefits are evident – however, using sprinklers can also offer greater overall value. Guidance repeatedly states that where sprinklers are used, other fire prevention measures can be reduced to provide cost benefits and design flexibility.

Factoring sprinklers into building design

It is vital that sprinkler installation is considered as part of a building’s design at the beginning of a project, to ensure that fire safety is maximised. All stakeholders and interested parties should also have been consulted in confirming the fire strategy for the building. It is also beneficial to involve the building insurer at the earliest opportunity, so that they can highlight any areas of concern, provide technical advice, confirm if any exceptions are warranted, and ensure that the building is fully protected in accordance with the relevant standard.

For fire sprinklers to operate effectively in the event of a fire, they must be correctly designed, installed, serviced, and maintained. This means using a system that has been tried and tested and, crucially, approved by an accredited third-party certification scheme using third-party approved components. The FPA’s LPC Rules for Automatic Sprinkler Installations is the most widely used and recognised installation standard in the UK, and is aimed at anyone involved in the specification, design, installation, service, and maintenance of sprinkler systems. 

Installing sprinklers provides proven fire protection for a building and its occupants in the event of a fire. It is essential that those in the construction industry consider sprinkler design and installation when designing and constructing a building, and that sprinkler provision is not overlooked due to a lack of comprehensive legislation.  

Our Know Your Building campaign aims to make the built environment a safer place to live and work. We created the Fire Risk Blind Spot Calculator to help identify gaps in your fire safety awareness and provide you with resources to build your knowledge based on your personalised scores. Find out more here.