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A sustainable building starts with a fire safe building

Susanne Dyrbøl
Susanne Dyrbøl
07 July 2020

Next Generation EU strengthens the economy but fails to ask what makes a building sustainable. Not renovating for fire resilience is a missed opportunity.

North America green building design and construction using green roofs to save energy, absorb rainfall, and help cool the air during the summer when the humidity and temperature in urban areas is much higher than nearby countrysides. Sustainable infrastructure and buildings.

Just like the rest of the world, the EU is facing a challenging future, where the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will have to be managed effectively for member states to recover successfully. How we choose to respond now can have a lasting impact on our future. According to President von der Leyen, the model developed over the last 70 years faces an existential risk, requiring unprecedented investment and innovation during what she calls this generation’s defining moment.

Recovering from the economic, fiscal, and social fall-out brought on by the virus will depend on a strong investment strategy and renovation policy going forward. The lockdown, where many people were forced to stay at home for several months, highlighted how much we depend on buildings for our health and comfort.

As the cost of the recovery package will have to be paid back by the citizens over the next 30 years, the money must be invested for the common good – sustainable investments in building renovation and related areas will bring tangible long-term benefits to the wider European population and should therefore be given a high priority when member states develop their recovery plans. The EU Commission estimate the investment gap for building renovation to be EUR 185 bn per year.

So it’s important to consider what it is that makes a building sustainable!

Fire resilience is one of the  crucial parameters of the sustainability of a building, but it’s often left unnoticed in existing certification schemes for sustainable or green construction. As the cost of the recovery package will have to be paid back by the citizens, it’s vital that new initiatives also address one of the biggest safety concerns for building stock going forward, namely fire resilience.

Why fire safety needs renewed focus during the renovation wave

Roughly 75 percent of European buildings are energy inefficient today, and we expect 80 percent of these structures to remain in use in 2050.

Achieving a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050 will require a major investment in renovation projects. The renovation wave proposed in the EU Green Deal aims to double the annual rate of renovated buildings in member states to address this challenge. Using this renovation initiative to improve the fire resilience in EU buildings is a unique opportunity for member states to make their buildings truly sustainable and resilient.

The impacts of fire-safety on sustainability

Integrating fire resilience into EU’s building initiatives can help improve the sustainability of the built environment for future generations. The adverse effects of a building fire go beyond the immediate structure, the victims, and emergency response personnel. It also adds pollutant gases to the air, contaminates water systems, and influences the health of citizens. Fire directly affects all three pillars of sustainability:

  • Social – Every day in Europe, around 5,000 fire incidents occur, and annually 70,000 people require hospitalisation, with 4,000 yearly fatalities arising from these events. Fire influences communities, businesses, families, and workers for several years, sometimes with lifelong impacts, including job reductions, long-term healthcare requirements and devastating financial losses to businesses
  • Economic – Losses due to fires include merchandise, infrastructure, documents or data, and the interruption of services making it difficult for businesses to recover. Fire incidents cost the EU around €126 billion every year, equivalent to one percent of GDP
  • Environmental – The combustion process of a building fire creates air pollution and releases atmospheric particulates, including nitrogen oxides. Extinguishing the fire causes harmful effluent in runoff water systems. One study found that warehouse fires in England and Wales added 135,000 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere every year

Including fire resilience as part of the building codes and policies can help individuals, businesses and societies recover quickly from these types of incidents. If a building can burn down to the ground and require extensive rehabilitation of the surrounding environment, how sustainable was it in the first place?

How to improve fire safety in Europe’s buildings

Fire safety remains a national competence according to the subsidiarity principle, but the EU still has an important  role to play.

To improve safety in case of fire it is important to ensure:

  1. Fire does not spread from one building to another
  2. Fire and smoke do not spread beyond the compartment of fire origin
  3. People shall not be trapped inside the building because of a fire
  4. Buildings shall not collapse because of a fire
  5. Fire fighters have necessary facilities to rescue people and extinguish the fire
  6. Materials, structures, building elements and installations have adequate fire safety properties
  7. Fire safety is ensured for the entire lifetime of the building

The design of a fire resilient building or renovation must also consider the category of use and risk classification of the buildings. High risk buildings, such as high rise buildings, hospitals, care homes, kindergartens and prisons, are of particular concern for the fire design because people cannot self-evacuate when a fire occurs. For these buildings, it is essential to limit the possibility of fire and smoke spread and this can be achieved by using non-combustible materials.

As part of a holistic approach to fire safety, making these principles a part of future building codes and regulations can improve the sustainability of structures in all member states.

Since the EU will be investing our common money into proposed recovery programs, we need to ensure initiatives improve building sustainability and address fire safety. If the EU really wants to reduce waste, manage natural resources efficiently, and limit environmental impacts, now is the time to make fire resilience in buildings a part of the recovery strategy for all member states.

Building a sustainable and fire resilient Europe for the future

The drive to increase sustainability in buildings across the union is also a unique opportunity to address the fire safety of the built environment. To ensure the sustainability of buildings, decision makers will need to add the fire performance of structures to the policy agenda. It includes regulating active systems (like detectors and sprinklers) and passive barriers (like stone wool insulation) that improve fire compartmentation while helping it resist and recover from incidents, providing better protection for the inhabitants.

ROCKWOOL Group’s products deliver passive barriers that improve fire resilience in structures, making buildings truly sustainable for future generations.