Hazards in Building Design

Hazards in Building Design

High-rise building fires with heavy loss of life in other nations, the commission warned, “suggest that luck may run out for the United States … As more and more Americans choose to live or work in high-rise buildings, their importance as a fire problem will increase.”

The commission pointed out that “fire safety analysis is lagging behind innovation in building design,” and “there is little incentive to invest in fire safety.” The commission said that designers leave two important questions unanswered when they introduce innovations: first, are structural members adequately protected from fire, and second, are fire safety tests adequate for measuring the fire protection an innovation provides?

The commission charged that “safety becomes, for most designers, nothing more than a necessary evil for compliance with local codes” when the chief goals of designers are to plan a building that will be functional and have a pleasing appearance at the cheapest possible cost.

Building codes criticized

At the same time, the commission charged, “Building codes have characteristics which encourage the outlook that they are nuisances.”

Codes become inflexible as new requirements are piled on top of old and outmoded ones,” the commission declared, and added that “often the requirements are excessive.” It pointed out that where contents “would all burn in about half an hour, requirements for three to four hours of fire resistance in bearing walls are not uncommon.”

On the other hand, “early warning of occupants, smoke movement, and toxic gas production are virtually ignored,” the commission asserted.

Testing and using materials may be two different things, the report pointed out. If a designer “uses a material in a way that has not been tested, he has no way of knowing how or whether the fire safety characteristics are different.” The report also cited a deficiency in that the knowledge on which safety standards are based is empiricalgained mostly from fire experience and a limited range of test conditions—and does not reflect a “fundamental understanding of the behavior of fire.”

Research advice needed

The commission urged “the National Bureau of Standards to assess current progress in fire research and define the areas in need of additional investigation. Further, the bureau should recommend a program for translating research results into a systematic body of engineering principles and, ultimately, into guidelines useful to code writers and building designers.”

Much fire safety knowledge is being ignored, the commission declared, and it urged the use of “a sophisticated systems approach to fire safety design.” The relationship among components is important in this approach and tradeoffs are sought. For example, the installation of alarm and sprinkler systems could reduce fireproofing requirements.

’’Another important aspect of the systems approach,” the commission said, “is that backup measures are provided in case part of the system fails. But redundancy for the sake of redundancy is avoided.”

The commission recommended that “the National Bureau of Standards in cooperation with the National Fire Protection Association and other appropriate organizations, support research to develop guidelines for a systems approach to fire safety in all types of buildings.”

Fire safety effectiveness statement

An outgrowth of a fire safety systems analysis is a different type of study which the commission called “a fire safety effectiveness statement.” The commission explained that the statement “is an attempt to state, in quantified terms, the potential losses of life and property (both inside and surrounding the structure) should the structure catch on fire.” Particular attention would be paid to the consequences of fire starting where people or highly flammable materials are concentrated.

“An additional set of calculations, designed to measure the adequacy of backup measures, should be based on assumptions of system failures, such as power blackouts or nonfunctioning smoke detectors,” the commission explained.

Fire safety effectiveness statements, the commission said, would indicate the demands put on the local fire service. Such statements are “particularly important for high-risk structures,” the commission added.

The commission recommended that “in all construction involving federal money, awarding of those funds be contingent upon the approval of a fire safety systems analysis and a fire safety effectiveness statement.”

Product design

Some hazards of consumer products “have not been adequately covered,” the commission reported. It noted that heating and cooking equipment, faulty wiring and electrical appliances are major causes of fires and said that the National Commission on Product Safety has identified “colored television sets, floor furnaces, hot water vaporizers, and unvented gas heaters as specific fire or burn hazards.”

The commission urged “the Consumer Product Safety Commission to give high priority to matches, cigarettes, heating appliances, and other consumer products that are significant sources of burn injuries, particularly products for which industry standards fail to give adequate protection.”

Educating designers

The commission deplored the lack of requirements for fire protection engineering courses in schools for architects and engineers and suggested that if architects and engineers “were schooled in the principles of fire safety,” they would probably be enthusiastic in the search for alternative solutions and better codes.

The commission recommended “to schools giving degrees in architecture and engineering that they include in their curricula at least one course in fire safety. Further, we urge the American Institute of Architects, professional engineering societies, and state registration boards to implement this recommendation.”

The commission also urged “the Society of Fire Protection Engineers to draft model courses for architects and engineers in the field of fire protection engineering.”

Because the impact of courses in architectural and engineering schools will not be felt for some time, the commission expressed the desirability of educating practicing building designers in fire safety and recommended “that the proposed national fire academy develop short courses to educate practicing designers in the basics of fire safety design.”

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