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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Letter to SciAm editors is published...

Incredibly, my letter to the editors of Scientific American has been published in abridged form in the January 2012 issue of Scientific American magazine. The original letter is is posted below in the Blog. The published version is available here.

Thanks to Guillermo for encouraging me to write the letter in the first place!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Sociology of Fire Engineering?

I was recently asked to to explain to a group of Fire Safety Engineers, Policy Makers, Architects, Firefighters, and others why I think the University of Edinburgh's new project on "Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering Expertise (IT-SAFE)" is so exciting and important. Here's what I decided to say... in case anyone is interested in a self-indulgent, self-critical mini rant...


Good afternoon, and thank you for attending this talk on our new research collaboration, IT-SAFE, which I find myself rather surprised to say I consider among the most important activities I have ever been involved in as a university academic and as an engineer.

For me, this new collaboration with sociologists of science is fundamentally about making technology matter. It is about making me, my colleagues, and my engineering discipline maximize our impact.

I’m a structural engineer, or rather more specifically a structural fire engineer. My specific expertise – such as it is – is in studying the thermal and physical response of materials and structures to fire. I’m interested in the weakening of materials and structures during fire… the 9/11 scenario where fires cause buildings or parts of buildings to collapse.

So why then, has sociology become so important to me?

As explanation, I hope you’ll forgive me for recounting a rather self-indulgent story of intellectual atonement.

Sir Duncan Michael, Trustee of the Ove Arup Foundation, to whom I am eternally grateful (both personally and professionally) for his support and more importantly for his prodding, will tell one story of how it is that I’ve come to work at Edinburgh, in partnership colleagues at Arup. My version of the story is somewhat simpler than his. I’ve said many times that I came to Edinburgh simply to atone for my sins.

I’ll not bore you with too many details, but my PhD in Structural Engineering, performed at Queen’s University and the National Research Council of Canada, was concerned with collapse of innovative types of columns – vertical load supporting elements in buildings – during fire.

To study this issue we did what any self respecting structural engineer would do; we performed a number of very costly and time-consuming standard tests in large scale fire testing furnace. Essentially, you take a column, you place a load on it, and you heat it in a furnace until it collapses… and in doing so you “prove” that the column is safe in a building in a fire… don’t you?

We spent about half a million dollars and several years performing these tests… we spent further years building sophisticated computer models to accurately simulate the tests and predict their outcomes… and further years interpreting the results and developing simplified design guidance. We obtained underwriters’ certified fire resistance ratings for our industrial sponsors, enabling them to sell their products to architects and developers… they were very pleased… and of course being good academics we wrote lots of papers.

And I knew that none of it truly mattered.

The testing furnace wasn’t a real fire.

The test columns weren’t real columns.

They weren’t in a real building; they didn’t interact with the rest of the building.

Essentially everything in these tests was unrealistic in some fundamental and important way.

Worse than this, the important aspects of the test results could easily have been predicted using simple hand calculations.

My tests were unnecessary. My models were misguided. I was very, very clever; but I was meaningless.

So why did we do it?

We did it because the regulatory process in North America (and in most other places) for approving use of new materials in structures requires this standard furnace testing and is willing to sacrifice rational thought and scientific understanding for compliance with the “standard”. The regulatory tail was wagging the scientific dog. I saw this, and I began to feel that I didn’t deserve my PhD.

But not so in Europe… or so I thought. This was a North American problem. Europeans, particularly Scots, are much more enlightened. So when Jose Torero at the University of Edinburgh and Barbara Lane at Arup Fire, the most advanced and innovative fire engineers in the world, came knocking, how could I resist the chance to set things right.

So I came to Scotland, began to atone for my sins, and for the past three and a bit years I’ve continued my efforts to truly understand the way that materials and structures respond to real fires in real buildings; and this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But all is not well. The problems I saw in North America exist also in Europe, and globally. I remain a very frustrated man. Read my letter to the Editors of Scientific American (below in the Blog) for an indication of my frustration.

In any case, I now find myself asking a number of questions that neither I nor my engineering colleagues are equipped to answer:

How is it that structural engineers and architects have managed for more than a decade to largely ignore the key engineering significance of the events of Sept 11, 2001 – that fire can cause the total collapse of a modern office building?

Why are so few buildings engineered with fire safety explicitly considered in the initial stages of design, particularly given that we (i.e. Arup and others) have the knowledge and skills to begin to do this?

What are society’s true perceptions and understanding of the personal, financial, environmental, and social risks associated with fire, how is tolerance of these risks shaped by our testing, design, and regulatory processes, and how does this perception and tolerance of risk influence design, regulation, and policy?

How do current fire safety testing, design, and compliance processes encourage or hinder innovation? To what extent is the tail wagging the dog, and how can we change this?

In short, how can we make our technology matter?

These questions (and many others) can’t be answered by engineers alone, as much as I prefer to think we have all the answers and that rationality will always triumph. It’s my hope that engaging with sociologists of science, Robin and his colleagues, will help us to understand and influence our own playing field, leading to better, more rational and holistic design, and eventually to a safer and more sustainable built environment; and I hope that all of you will engage with us in this process.

My deepest thanks to the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering for supporting this unique initiative. Thank you for listening.

Monday, December 05, 2011

2010 Impact Factors for fire related journals

The Journal Citation Reports has released the impact factors for 2010. The impact factor, one of the measures available to rank journals, is the frequency with which the "average article" in a journal has been cited in the previous two years. It is calculated dividing the number of citations to papers published in the previous two years by the total number of items published during the same period. In order and for fire related journals, these are:

#1 Progress in Energy and Combustion Science 10.36 (was 12.44 in 2009)
#2 Journal of Hazardous Materials 3.72 (was 4.14 in 2009)
#3 Combustion and Flame 2.747 (was 2.92  in 2009)
#4 International Journal of Wildland Fire 2.21 (was 1.90 in 2009)
#5 Building and Environment 2.13 (was 1.80 in 2009)
#6 Proceedings of the Combustion Institute 1.79 (was 3.51 in 2009)
#7 Engineering Structures 1.36 (was 1.26 in 2009)
#8 Experimental Thermal and Fluid Science 1.27 (was 1.23  in 2009)
#9 Combustion Science and Technology 1.11 (was 1.14 in 2009)
#10 Fire Safety Journal 1.02 (was 1.26 in 2009)
#11 Fire and Materials 0.96 (was 1.20 in 2009)
#12 Journal of Structural Engineering 0.83 (was 0.93 in 2009)
#13 Fire Technology 0.36 (was 0.37 in 2009)
#14 Journal of Fire Protection Engineering 0.15 (was 0.30 in 2009)

Clarification (derived from the wikipedia):
The 2010 impact factor of a given journal is equal to A/B. Where A is the number of times articles published in 2008 and 2009 were cited during 2010, and B is the total number of papers published by that journal in 2008 and 2009.

NOTE: Support your favorite journals by reading (and citing) them often

Monday, November 28, 2011

2011 Lloyd’s Prize to fire research

Congratulations to Dr Angus Law and co-authors for winning the 2011 Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in the Biological/Technological category for their paper on travelling fires for structural design. Dr Law graduated in 2010 with a PhD in Fire Safety Engineering from the University of Edinburgh and now works at Arup. The Science of Risk Prize was launched by Lloyd’s to stimulate cutting edge research into the latest emerging risks facing businesses.

 Design for infrastructure protection

The winning paper  is "The Influence of Travelling Fires on a Concrete Frame" (published in Engineering Structures 33), led by Dr Law and co-authored by Dr Stern-Gottfried, Dr Gillie and Dr Rein. The work argues that the trend towards open plan offices has changed the types of fire likely to occur in modern buildings. It uses science to look at ways to improve engineering guidelines and building design, reduce the risk of travelling fires, and help insurers better quantify and model fire risk. The presentation given by Dr Law at the award's ceremony built on the concepts of acceptable risk and the margin of error of design methods in the contextt of the engineering duty to use the world’s limited resources as efficiently as possible (see presentation here). The work was founded by BRE Trust and Arup.

Best runner-up

The best runner-up in the same category was our graduate Dr Sung-han Koo for his paper "Sensor-steered fire simulation" (published in Fire Safety Journal and co-authored by Dr J Fraser-Mitchell and Dr S Welch)

2010 Awards

This is the second time that Edinburgh recieves the award. Last year Dr Francesco Colella won the 2010 (inaugural) prize in Technology for the paper "A Novel Multiscale Methodology for Simulating Tunnel Ventilation Flows During Fires". And Dr Wolfram Jahn (in Technology) and Dr Claire Belcher (in Natural Hazards) were short-listed within the top five submissions.

Related links:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Students from Glasgow Caledonian University in the lab

Today we have a group of students from Glasgow Caledonian University doing some testing in our lab as part of their studies.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

FireForum Award 2011 to IMFSE

The International Master of Science in Fire Safety Engineering (IMFSE) has received the inaugural FireForum Award 2011 in the Social Value category. The IMFSE program is an Erasmus Mundus degree by the EU and coordinated by Ghent University (Prof. Bart Merci) in association with Lund University (Prof. Robert Jönsson) and The University of Edinburgh (Prof. José Torero).

Prof Bart Merci (right) receives the award as coordinator of IMFSE
The award

FireForum Awards is a new Belgium prize to celebrate excelence in fire safety engineering. It is organized by Fire Forum in cooperation with the Federal Public Service Home Affairs and the Federal Civil Security Knowledge (KCCE). The first edition of the awards was celebrated at the Koloniënpaleis, Tervuren, on 17 Nov 2011.

During the ceremony at the Kolonienpaleis

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Awards to Edinburgh students at the 10th IAFSS

The last Symposium of the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS), held at the University of Maryland, was attended by 18 members of the group who presented a total of 6 papers, 4 workshop talks, 9 posters, and 5 photos. 

Members of the University of Edinburgh at the 10th IAFSS Symposium 2011.

Congratulations to our two students who recieved awards for their research:

Angus Law recieved the Best PhD Thesis Award in Europe/Africa for his thesis titled The Assessment and Response of Concrete Structures Subject to Fire (2010).

Cristian Maluk recieved the Best Student Poster Award for his work Bond Strength Degradation for CFRP Bars and Steel Prestressing Wires in Concrete at Elevated Temperature Fire Behaviour of Novel Concrete Structural Elements.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Researchers offer hope of answer to Bing fires

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde have studied a burning Bing. A 30 m high waste heap at Bogside, North Lanarkshire, Scotland, started to smoulder (flameless combustion) in 2009, approximately 80 years after the closure of the pit. They are studying how the fires develop and spread, and hope their new understanding will enable development of a low-cost effective way to manage or extinguish the fires.

This will help protect local communities by limiting the risk of landslip, and also safeguard local ecosystems and the environment. There are hundredds of these bings in Scotland alone. The threat of burning and risk of land movement pose a risk to those who live nearby. Anything we can do to limit the potential harm to local people and the environment is a step in the right direction.

The work was presented at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting: Investigation of self-sustained combustion of a coal waste heap in Scotland. It was also featured in the The Scotsman, Edinburgh website, Strathclyde website, and Vision Systems (on our use of thermal imaging).

Coal mining was widespread in the central belt of Scotland from 1830 until the 1970’s and created a legacy of waste heaps or ‘bings’ that still dot the landscape. High content of coal fines and carbonaceous shales, make bings very prone to self-heating and smoldering combustion. Chemical, geotechnical and physical parameters of the Bogside Bing have been studied.

A combustion front is seen moving from west to east along the axis of the bing at an approximate rate of 1m/month. Three well-defined zones were identified and mapped using thermal imagery and temperature probes: the undisturbed zone, the preheating plus drying zone and the combustion zone. The subsurface fire results in a detrimental effect to the vegetation and structural integrity of the heap. Spread of the combustion is accompanied by the development of vents ahead of the front, fissures that run parallel to the direction of heating and smaller landslips along the flanks. Changes to the heap's soil mechanics induced by the smouldering front create a network of fissures, some running deep, that supply the front with enough air to sustain the process.

Analysis of gas from the vents, show elevated CO2, CO, CH4 and SO2, and partially depleted in oxygen. All these are indicative of smouldering activity within the bing. The primary environmental concerns are likely to be from SO2 release and metals leaching from waste material (i.e. Pb, Se, Cr). The stability of the structure may be compromised as smouldering progresses. Bogside Bing continues to release products of combustion and represents an accidental source of fossil fuel burning.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

IT-SAFE Project Launch

Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering and Expertise (IT-SAFE)

Monday 7 November 2011, 5.30 – 7.00 pm
Playfair Library, Old College, South Bridge, University of Edinburgh
Drinks and canapés

An interdisciplinary programme of social-science research designed to improve fire safety and the quality of our built environment by better interaction and integration of social and engineering research. Supported by The University of Edinburgh, The Ove Arup Foundation, and The Royal Academy of Engineering.


Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea, Principal, University of Edinburgh

Mr Steven Torrie: Head of Fire and Rescue Advisory Unit, Scotland
Professor Robin Williams: Director, Institute for the Study of Science, Technology
and Innovation, University of Edinburgh
Sir Duncan Michael: Trustee, The Ove Arup Foundation

RSVP by 31 October 2011
Eileen Mothersole, University of Edinburgh
Telephone : +44 (0)131 650 6398
E-mail :


An afternoon seminar will proceed this launch event:
In Case of Fire, Please Use the Elevator: Simulation Technology and Organization in Fire Engineering will be presented by Professor David Gann (Imperial College Business School) between 3.30 – 5pm in the Raeburn Room, Old College, University of Edinburgh. This event is free and open to all to attend. For further details please visit:


A London launch event for IT-SAFE is also being held on Tuesday 8 November 2011, 5.30pm for 6.15pm start, at Arup, 13 Fitzroy Street, London. For further information please contact Stephanie Wilde:

Friday, October 14, 2011

L&B FireFighter Internship 2011

Angus Elliot - 4th Year MEng Student

This year myself and Alastair Temple were lucky enough to be picked to take part in the Lothian & Borders Fire and Rescue Service internship, and what an experience it’s been! The internship lasted a total of 5 weeks and took us round every aspect of the Fire Service and enabled us to get a fantastic insight into what they do, how they do it and how engineers can make their job easier and safer.

For our first week, we were to be based at the Scottish International Fire Training Centre at McDonald Rd, learning the basic skills we would need in order to make the most of our time with the Service.  Against all logic and common sense, the principle structure at the centre is The Ship. The huge ships hull, sat in the yard is completely dark inside and is filled with smoke and fire to enable firefighters to get as realistic an environment as possible to hone their skills. What would they do with us on the first day I wondered? Surely nothing too demanding, probably just a nice easy introduction and some simple tasks I thought. Wrong! Within a couple of hours of arriving we were fully kitted up in fire fighting gear and being given a crash course in setting up, servicing and operating the fire service breathing apparatus, or BA for short. What followed, we were told, was usually taught to recruits over the space of a week and involved an afternoon learning search and rescue techniques in the hot, smoky and completely dark ship in full kit! A real highlight was the ‘confined space’ test involving crawling through a purpose built narrow, multi-storey cage in the dark and finally lying down and pulling yourself through an even narrower 10ft long tunnel only just big enough to fit your shoulders and cylinder in. Not for the claustrophobic!! Most of the rest of the week was spent watching, helping to set up and also taking part in the various training exercises at the centre for the watch crews. A real eye opener into the skill and professionalism that fire fighters perform their duties with, and the level of pressure they can be under. On the Wednesday we were also able to spend the day with one of the instructors who was running a Fire Marshals course at the offices of a large company. This involved educating staff members on fire safety, evacuation and basic fire fighting skills (and also providing an excuse to try all the different kinds of fire extinguishers without being told off).  In the space of 3 days, were fully qualified BA wearers and Fire Marshals!

Week 2 was based at Fire Service Headquarters on Lauriston Road with the Business and Commerce department. The week was spent following their fire officers as they carried out fire safety audits on various commercial properties in the city ranging from care homes, bingo halls and industrial units. Although it may not have been as action packed as the previous week, it was interesting (and also frightening) to see for ourselves the range of fire precautions businesses use, from fully integrated systems and engineering, to hand held air horns and propane cylinders stored next to bronze kilns! You could get a real sense of the distance we still have to go to really get home the message of fire safety engineering, and avoid the completely preventable accidents which still commonly occur. On the Tuesday, a trip had been organised for us to visit the fire station at Edinburgh Airport. Here we were shown round the phenomenal equipment they had there and were also shown round all areas of the airport to learn about the complex fire systems they have in place there. We even got a cheeky wee tour up the Air Traffic Control tower! The next day we were also shown round Scottish Parliament, where even though it is a new building, there are still some seemingly fundamental fire design flaws when looked at closely.

Alastair and I split up for weeks 3 and 4 between Fire Investigation and Fire Crew Operations. I did fire investigation first, followed by a week following the watch crews at Tollcross fire station, and Alastair vice versa. The Fire Investigation branch is based in Livingston, shadowing the investigators whenever they were called to investigate the causes of a fire. Unfortunately for me, Edinburgh was being very sensible and there weren’t many call outs that week! I did however have the opportunity to accompany them to re-investigate the cause of a fatal fire at a chip frying factory in Duns. Picking through the wreckage of a completely destroyed building certainly opens up your eyes to the power of fire and what it can do to a structure.
The highlight of the week however, was the Fire Behaviour training day at Fillyside. The Fire service use Fillyside as their base in which to train crews in Fire Behaviour. It includes a full scale flashover unit, attack unit as well as a mock-house. The day included kitting up in full kit and BA and sitting in a shipping container in full flashover conditions. Inside the unit, temperatures range from 750C at 2m, to 400C at 1m and are enough to melt fire proof clothing! Inside we took part in the crew training exercise, taking it in turns to control the conditions with water. Although we were safety briefed and there was a safety team monitoring the exercise, it gave us a huge appreciation of the dangers caused by a fully developed fire and the effect it can have on humans as well as the structure. In terms of fire safety engineering, this day is absolutely invaluable and will be extremely useful in years to come during our studies, as well as being a lot of fun!

Next up was the week I’d been waiting for, a week ‘on the run’ at Tollcross fire station.  As Tollcross serves virtually the entire city centre, it’s the busiest of the Edinburgh fire stations. A majority of the calls were AFA’s, or automatic fire alarms, however on the Tuesday I was lucky enough to be in the appliance which was first on scene to a flat fire on the Royal Mile. It was an incredible experience to see the skill and professionalism of the fire fighters, and to see them implementing the training they’d been given at ‘the ship’. Even though it hadn’t quite flashed over, the flat was almost completely destroyed, taking with it all of the 93yr old residents possessions. A sobering reminder what we’re all up against in this discipline.

Alastair Temple - 4th Year MEng student

I was not quite so lucky (or maybe luckier depending on what point of view you take!) in that I didn’t manage to be on the scene of any fire in either week. Despite this I managed to see a lot of what the Fire Fighters do in the more “everyday” sense, from tests on all the equipment which is held on the appliances to once again getting acquainted with my notes and lashes. Or in the week at Livingston even getting a demonstration of the force of which car airbags deploy with and how to avoid accidently setting them off when performing a recovery at a road traffic accident. And I did get a glimpse of the professionalism of the fire fighters with the speed and no-nonsense reactions each time we got a call out to an AFA even though the likelihood was it would be a false alarm, they never take this for granted.
Week 5 involved us being back at the MacDonald Road training centre for half the week where we got a refresher with our BA skills and then helped prepare the centre for the weeks recruitment drive by being guinea pigs for the tests that they put wanna-be fire fighters through in their initial screening process. These range from a confined space test (like the one we did on the first day but with just the mask and without the tunnel) to check for claustrophobia, to a fine motor skills test where some equipment must be assembled and de-assembled within 5 minutes, to physical tests of of upper body and arm strength as well as general fitness. Suffice to say here I established that I am definitely not of the right build to become a fire fighter, some serious gym work would be required before I could haul the weight up two stories on the single pully! 

Our final day with the Service was the week after where we spent a day at The Fire Services Training College in Gullane, this is where all new fire fighters in Scotland go for their first 13 weeks of training after joining the Service. We got to see quite a few new things here including our first backdraft done in the back-yard of the centre which was really interesting to see. It also gave us another chance to get use your newly found BA skills (something we were definitely enjoying by this point!) in some more unusual situations as they have a roll-over simulated gas fire to simulate flashover. This was also great as it was the first (and only) time either of us had taken a camera down, and getting some photos of us doing some things, was… well… definitely worth it.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative 5 weeks and I would highly recommend applying for it to any Fire Safety Engineering students.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Another dangerous media interpretation: Castles in the Air

Letter to the editors, September 2011

Dear Editors of the Scientific American

I am writing in response to the article “Castles in the Air” by Mark Lamster, featured in the September 2011 issue. I have struggled to find the word to describe how I feel, but I think the best would be to suggest that I am overwhelmingly disappointed.

Firstly, I am disappointed with the content and indeed with the approach Mr Lamster has taken in proposing to discuss the issues of tall building design that have apparently been addressed over the last decade as a result, or at least in part to the events on 11 September 2001. Secondly I am disheartened that this article, in my opinion, propagates almost completely the anecdotal approach the media seems to take time and time again with respect to issues of debate in engineering fields. Obviously, I don’t expect to open Scientific American and find myself faced with a selection of technical papers, however I would expect that an article designed to give readers of related or scientific fields some insight into another area, would at least be built upon the founds of the root problem to which solutions are being proudly presented.

Surely before explaining the “new” measures that have been adopted in tall building design in response to the collapse of three such buildings, one might consider, as a premise for the article, alluding to why the buildings did collapse in the first place? I find it odd that one might present answers to a problem when the problem has not actually been defined. Indeed, how is it possible to present “answers” in this circumstance?

As a professional in Fire Engineering and research, my immediate reaction was one of outrage, followed by disappointment, followed by despair. Three buildings collapsed that day due to uncontrolled fires and as a function of how the steel structures subsequently performed under such conditions. I feel that the omission of at least an acknowledgment of this fact seriously undermines any arguments or conclusions drawn in the article.

Unfortunately I feel that the inadequate definition of an accurate premise further hinders the article throughout and in fact, after reading for a while, I feel that for me, all meaning becomes lost. Certainly, I lose faith halfway through that I will find some definitive, purposeful and inspiring reports of meaningful developments within tall building design for life safety.

Mr Lamster opens with the Les Robertson remark: "I espoused… that the responsibility was to keep planes away from the buildings and not to design the buildings for that circumstance". On one hand, I fully understand this philosophy and agree that it would be impossible to design every building for an “imagined future worst case scenario”, but one has to ask at this point, if fire is not noted as a issue, and we are ignoring the attacks by hijacked planes, then what are the problems with the buildings that we will seek to address during the rest of the article?

As Fire Engineers, we do hope that fire will be kept out of buildings, but to assume that it will be so would be to miss the point entirely. Dynamic, performance-based solutions and cost effective fire engineered designs are sought to minimise the effects should an unlikely event such as a fire occur. Is it not realistic to hope rather, or at least suggest, that we will be able to design buildings where life safety will not be so severely impacted because of intuitive design and advancement of materials science in the future, as opposed to what seems to be assumed here, that buildings would need to be made “sturdier” in the traditional sense with more materials and more expense? Perhaps this is a question for engineers and persons whose sound bites appear in this article rather than the author.

"One safety-enhancing design feature that is only beginning to be
implemented is the use of sky-bridges between buildings"

Certainly, access between buildings at high levels provides more safety through increased egress options, but I struggle to agree on the appropriateness of highlighting this as one of the "new", main safety design features in response to WTC 1 & 2. A poor choice given the context.

I could go on, but I think at this point it would not be constructive to do so. In fairness, Lamster does not have much to work with. Perhaps the lack of formal examples presented here of lessons we have learned from 9/11 with respect to all aspects of tall building design, is so because, frankly they are few and far between. Certainly, with regards to fire safety, no direct changes can be cited since the problem of fire safety was never defined in the first instance. I would certainly hope that the inclusion of “radio repeaters in stair towers” [to improve fire fighter communication] does not define the evolution of fire and life safety measure development over the past decade.

The problem on that day was the subject of the accumulation of numerous independent events, however the final trigger for the catastrophic outcome was one of inadequate performance of the building structures under fire conditions. Subsequently egress was compromised due to the nature of the attacks and how these impacted on the specific design of WTC 1 and 2.

I felt disappointed mostly because I was excited to read a summary of meaningful progression in design ideas and technical thinking about a difficult and sometimes misunderstood issue, but instead was presented with an anecdotal article whose main purpose seemed to be to continue the overarching theme of the September 2011 issue that [from cover] “We have seen a brighter future, and it is urban”, and very little else.

A purposeful consideration of steps needed in order to incite meaningful changes to the way we design for fire and life safety can be read here:

Article entitled “Challenging Attitudes on Codes and Safety”.

The author, Prof. Jose Torero, is Co-chair of the CTBUH Fire and Life Safety Working Group. Mr Lamster does include comments from several CTBUH members in the article, so perhaps this may be of interest?

Thank you for your time

Kind Regards

Ryan Hilditch

PhD Researcher
BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering
The University of Edinburgh

Friday, September 30, 2011

Group photo - September 2011

A group photo, taken on 28th September 2011. Includes a few new faces, a few visitors and there are quite a few people missing as well, but you rarely get everyone in the same place at the same time. Visit our Facebook page to see the tagged people.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fire Group News Overview Jan to Aug 2011

News overview from the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh during the first semester of 2011 (extracted from the IAFSS Newsletter n31, August 2011).

Since Jan 2011 two new PhD students have joined us: Shaun Devaney (Ireland) and Ryan Hilditch (UK). During the same time, three students received the PhD degree: Dr Rory Hadden (now at University of Western Ontario, Canada), Dr Pauline Bartoli (now University of Corsica, France) and Dr Jamie Stern-Gottfried (now at Arup, UK). Two Research Associates promoted outside the group: Dr David Lange joined SP, Sweden, and Dr Claire Belcher got an academic position at University of Exeter, UK, in Earth System Science. The current group consists of nine academics, four research associates and 26 PhD students. Other worthy news are summarized as follows.

The Ove Arup Foundation has made a major investment to tackle the obdurate problems surrounding fire safety. Working with Fire Safety Engineers and Architects at the University of Edinburgh, The Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation (ISSTI) will explore how to ensure the effective adoption of technical advances in the built environment. The Ove Arup Foundation has agreed to invest £200,000 over the next 5 years in a major interdisciplinary research and knowledge transfer initiative aimed at Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering Expertise (ITSAFE).

The Centre has secured a major grant from The Lloyd's Register Educational Trust (LRET) to hold a series of three annual week-long intensive seminars ("think tanks") in areas related to Fire Safety Engineering. This series of seminars was motivated by the need to have a new generation of leaders in Fire Safety Engineering that can drive the field through the drastic transition it is currently experiencing. An ever evolving construction industry, drastic changes in regulatory environment, multi-disciplinary drivers for innovation, and ever increasing demands for the fire service require a new face of leadership. The seminars are intended to bring together selected leaders of today with the leaders of the future to define a coherent path for different areas of critical importance to the field. This unique initiative was launched this year with The 1st Annual LRET/UoE Global Technical Leadership Seminar in Fire Safety Engineering. The seminar had the theme of "Education for the Future of Fire Safety Engineering," and was held in Scotland between 30 May and 3 June 2011. Participants were selected as key players in defining the future of advanced fire safety engineering as a professional/academic discipline. The seminar was run as a five day retreat, delivered by the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at a residential venue close to Edinburgh. Each session began with a presentation to be given by one of the participants. This initiated discussions on the relevant issues. A small group of undergraduate and graduate students, some of whose studies are also financially supported by The LRET, were also competitively selected to join the seminar, bringing the total number of participants to approximately 20. Dissemination activities will include the publication of a "white paper" based on the seminar's discussions and outcomes. All of the participants felt that the event was a great success and will lead to a number of important changes, actions, and significant progress for fire safety engineering education globally. Feedback has been very positive thus far, and several participants have formulated specific personal action items within their own organizations.

Prof José Torero delivered the public lecture: "The Twin Towers: 10 years – 10 Lessons on Sustainable Infrastructure" on 14th March 2011. This was a joint event of The Royal Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Edinburgh. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers represents one of the most dramatic failures of modern structural engineering. One of the most exhaustive and expensive failure analyses in history was conducted in the midst of speculation, controversy and conspiracy theories. In parallel, the world has seen an extraordinary evolution of the super-tall building. Seven of the ten tallest buildings in the world have been built after 9/11. These not only include the tallest four, but eight of these buildings are outside the USA. Furthermore, a strong drive towards sustainability has driven tall building design to levels of innovation never seen before. Prof Torero’s presentation extracted, from a decade of questioning and innovation, ten lessons on what is sustainable infrastructure.

Prof José Torero was awarded the 2010 Tom Dalyell Prize for Science Communication at the University of Edinburgh during his Christmas Lecture "Fire: A story of fascination, fear and familiarity". In his lecture, Prof Torero discussed how humans have been fascinated with fire for millions of years. He examined how fire can provide welcome warmth in everyday life but, on a bigger scale, the unpredictability of fire can be terrifying. He contrasted the emotions associated with fire, depending on whether it is under control or not.

Congratulations to Dr Francesco Colella for winning the Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in the Technology Category. The prize was for his research paper "A Novel Multiscale Methodology for Simulating Tunnel Ventilation Flows During Fires" (published in Fire Technology). He led this work as a Research Associate at The School of Engineering from 2007 to 2010. This is Lloyd’s research prize for academics and aims at keeping the world’s leading specialist insurance market with the pace of academic knowledge and cutting edge thinking. For the same award competition, the fire group had two more papers short-listed as the top of each category. Dr Wolfram Jahn was short-listed in Technology Risk, for his paper "Forecasting Fire Growth using an Inverse Zone Modelling Approach" (published in Fire Safety Journal). And Dr Claire Belcher was short-listed in Climate Change Risk for her paper "Increased fire activity at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary in Greenland due to climate-driven floral change" (published in Nature Geoscience).

The University is one of 13 partners collaborating on a three year, EU FP7 funded research project on Aircraft Fire Safety. The 'kick-off' meeting was in Poitiers, France, in January 2010.

On Nov 2010 Dr Guillermo Rein was interviewed by Scottish TV about a recent research paper published in Fire Safety Journal on "Forecasting Fire Growth". On the same day he was interviewed for BBC Radio and newspaper The Scotsman.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh has awarded a JM Lessells Scholarship Award to the fire group PhD student Holly Smith. She will spend two months at the Department of Civil Engineering, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada and work on shear failure of concrete structures during fire.

We continue communicating views, news and achievements in our blog

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An inexcusable omission...

Dear Editors of Scientific American,

I read with great interest (and disappointment) Mark Lamster’s article “Castles in the Air” in your September 2011 issue. In presenting the changes that have occurred in the design and construction of skyscrapers in the decade since September 11th 2001, Mr Lamster (apparently along with many of the top names in the architectural and structural engineering communities) has completely missed the most important issue.

While highlighting the structural threats to skyscrapers, Mr Lamster notes three issues: aircraft impact, earthquakes, and wind. The claim is made that structural engineers are now able to design against these threats with a very high level of confidence and safety. As a structural engineer I agree completely.

Unfortunately, the Twin Towers did not collapse due to aircraft impact, earthquake, or wind; they collapsed due to fire. Nowhere in the article is the structural threat posed by fire explicitly mentioned. I agree completely with Mr Robertson's statement that the responsibility is “to keep airplanes away from the buildings and not to design the buildings for that circumstance,” but again this misses the point entirely.

On 9/11 we clearly saw, for the first time, that fires can cause entire modern highrise buildings to collapse. Indeed, in addition to the Twin Towers a steel-framed highrise (Building 7) on the WTC site also collapsed on 9/11. Building 7 was not struck by an aircraft; it collapsed due to the structural impacts of an uncontrolled office contents fire, ignited by debris from the Twin Towers.

The most important engineering lesson of the 9/11 collapses is that in order to ensure the safety of occupants (and property) in ever taller and more optimized and sustainable tall buildings, the potential impacts of uncontrolled fires need to be explicitly considered during the structural design process. These impacts need to be considered with the same care as earthquakes and wind. The engineering community has the technical knowledge to begin to do this, yet it is still not required by building codes and happens only very rarely in practice. While changes in escape stair width, firefighter communication systems, and the addition of skybridges (all noted by Mr Lamster) can only improve life safety in tall buildings, they do nothing to prevent structural collapse due to fire.

It is both sad and worrying that the structural engineering community has, with a few notable exceptions, failed to understand the full significance of the events of 9/11 for the design of tall buildings. We have vividly seen what uncontrolled fires can do to tall buildings yet we continue to design them using decades old, outdated knowledge. In addition to the measures noted in Mr Lamster's article, preventing another 9/11 requires that the structural engineering and architecture communities own up to this reality and take the necessary actions.

Perhaps Scientific American should consider publishing an article highlighting the significant and considerable technical progress in structural fire engineering being made by engineers around the world.

Kind regards,

Dr Luke Bisby
Senior Research Fellow in Structures in Fire
The University of Edinburgh

NOTE: Mark Lamster's original Scientific American article is available here

Role of Codes and Standards in FSE Education

Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, recently wrote an interesting article on the role of codes and standards in education.

Kathleen was one of the participants in the LRET/UoE Global Technical Leadership Seminar in Fire Safety Engineering.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Letter to the Editor of Scientific American

(Email sent on Thur 15 Sep 2011 to

Dear Editor of Scientific American,

Your September issue included the piece "Castles in the Air" by Mark Lamster where the failed prophecy that the attacks of 9/11 were to end the age of the skyscraper is discussed. 

The article highlights that 2011 will be the single greatest year for the construction of tall buildings in history. That China is leading the skyscraper boom, yet their engineering design is dominated by American firms.

The article discusses design issues on evacuation. But the World Trade Center was designed to evacuate rapidly, and so both towers WTC1 and 2 did below the impact floors on 9/11. WTC7 was also evacuated in time.

The article also discusses design issues on aircraft impact. But the World Trade Center was designed to withstand the impact of a large aircraft, and so both towers WTC1 and 2 did on 9/11. They collapsed because of fire. WTC7 was not hit by an aircraft, but collapsed due to fire as well. 

The article goes to imply that the design of tall buildings for protection against terrorist attacks is mostly about aircraft impact and evacuation. It does not discuses fire. But WTC 1, 2 and 7 collapsed because of fire. So they only issue that is not addressed in the article is the one that brought World Trade Center down, and the one where design advances over the past decade have been most marginal. 

This is a thin favour to fire engineering and to the safety of tall buildings.


 *Dr Guillermo Rein*
Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering
University of Edinburgh

"so easy it seemed, Once found, which yet unfounded most would have
thought, Impossible!" J Milton  

UPDATE Sept 2011: This letter was followed by two more from Dr Bisby and Hilditch

UPDATE Dec 2011: The letter of Dr Bisby has been published in the December 2011 issue of Scientific American.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Introduction to Optimization course delivered by Visting Scholar

Dr Jimenez starting the second day of the course
Dr Jesus Jimenez, Lecturer in Computational Mechanics at ICAI School of Engineering, Madrid, delivered in August a short course on optimization to the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. The course content covered both classical and metaheuristics methods, providing an overview of most important methods and going in detail to explain simplex and genetic algorithms.

It was attended by 19 people from all engineering disciplines, mostly PhD students but also postdocs and three academics.

Dr Jimenez was a Visiting Scholar hosted by the BRE Center for Fire Safety Engineering. The course and his one-month visit were funded by the European Union.

Friday, September 09, 2011

One good book deserves another

Dr Frank Rushbrook CBE visited our labs today. That's the 'Rushbrook' Fire Laboratory, which he helped establish. While he was with us, I asked him to sign a copy of his book "Fire Aboard" (3rd Edition), which he gladly did.

And then Prof Dougal Drysdale appeared and gave Dr Rushbrook a copy of the 3rd Edition of his book "An Introduction to Fire Dynamics" which he autographed for him.

[Thanks to Patricio Becerra for the photos]

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Was it worth it?

April had come to an end, classes were done and what was left to do was to mark exams. Final year students had handed their thesis and finally I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. This was a particularly hard term for me, my last one as Head of Institute, with both the Structural and Fire Engineering and International Masters courses running at full steam, our biggest group of Structural Fire Safety Engineering undergraduates and a very intense week of thinking about education with the LRET Seminar. My summer was saturated and very poorly planned, in less than 3 months I had to fly more than 80,000 miles (I will spare you the details) with critical commitments throughout the summer. Thus, the end of the term was the last time I had to take a deep breath before I had to sink under the water again and hold my breath until September.

It is then, the end of April, when two of my final year undergraduate students (Alex Duffy and Phil Close) approached me with what they called “a crazy but very exciting idea.” I have to say that I agreed to see them hoping that all they wanted was to have a nice chat. I had enjoyed more than one of those chats with both of them, these were all interesting and very enjoyable nevertheless way too lengthy (mostly my fault...I get carried away when students are willing to listen to me).

They showed up with drawings for “The Temple.” Alex and Phil had just got involved in supporting the fire aspects of the design of “The Temple” for “Burning Man.” They were seeking for technical support from me.

For those of you who know me and “Burning Man” you will immediately conclude that there is nothing more distant from my “life philosophy” than “Burning Man.” For those of you who know me but do not know of “Burning Man” I will suggest you Google it so that you can come to the conclusion that “Jose Torero” and “Burning Man” do not belong in the same sentence. For those of you who do not know me, just believe me, I do not engage with nature, I support repressing your feelings, I actively engage in suppressing any form of counter-culture and I am convinced that the generation of 1968 and the Hippies are the source of selfishness and greed that is the basis of the inevitable demise of the Western cultural model.

As Alex put it “this will be the biggest and most impressive Temple ever built,” it represents the “transient nature of life” and thus the way it burns has to “reflect the evolutionary nature of life.” The final statement: “It'll be intense, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience!” On top of the magnitude and complexity of the task, the architectural design was already completed, the structural design was well advanced and the burn date was set to Sunday, September 4th. As you can imagine, given my commitments, my state of mind, the imminent deadline and the nature of the project this was the last thing I wanted to do.

Furthermore, undergraduates are the source of the greatest ideas but not necessarily have the experience or skills to develop them, thus the prospect of yet another unmanageable commitment was quite obvious from the onset.

I have to say that the only reason why I agreed to be involved was because I do not know how to say NO, especially to students. They are the one and only reason why I am in a University and they bring to me the energy that many times is the one thing that keeps me going. I feel I owe them, so I cannot say no. I took a deep breath and said fine...“but you have to do all the work! I can answer your questions, give you ideas but I am in no position to drive anything...” they obviously agreed, so we were ON, but... deep in my mind all I wanted to do was to run as far away as possible from this project.

As it happens, when you panic you enlist someone to help you, so I asked Luke (structural support) to come to the next meeting. I could have enlisted other people but I was truly ashamed of asking, I did not feel that I had the right to waste anyone else’s time in such insanity. Just to further overwhelm me, Luke took less than 10 seconds to fully empathise with Alex and Phil and before I could utter a word he was suggesting that the burning rates should be controlled in a manner such that the growth and decay of an individual’s life was reproduced by the rate of burning and the ultimate rate of collapse of the different components of the structure representing each stage of life. I am trying to paraphrase him, but his thoughts were so fluid and were expressed in such a natural way that I would never be able to repeat what he said! At that point I finally understood what I had got myself into...

The building design was consistent with the magnitude of the “metaphysical vision” – needless to say, seeing the first drawings was not comforting experience. First of all, it is massive (about 10 storeys high) and it is quite intricate. As can be seen from the sketch there is a main structure surrounded by 5 smaller structures all linked by cloisters and bridges. Each smaller structure represents a stage of life finally uniting in the central structure that somehow represents the union that is life itself...If you want to know more about this check Alex & Phil’s website ( you can imagine all this entered through one ear and left through the other so fast that it has left no trace, thus don’t believe anything I am writing, check their website, I am sure they have it right. The one thing that remained was the magnificent magnitude of the engineering challenge.

Alex and Phil were serious, it only took a couple of names from me and they did all the rest. They got money to buy cameras, they convinced the Principal of the University of Edinburgh to pay for Phil’s plane ticket (Thank you Prof. O’Shea! – At the end Phil unfortunately could not come – he was truly missed) and got started with true engineering work.

We had a couple of meetings and exchanged several e-mails concluding that the only way of controlling fire growth was to open the cavities inside the walls in a strategic manner so that the fire propagation will be managed in a manner that could be insensitive to wind (another factor – the place where the event is held (Black Rock City – Nevada) is well known for sudden and violent sand storms that can happen without warning). We will play with the connections and controlled reduction of the cross section of some of the structural elements to control the rate of collapse – I know that anyone reading this that has worked with fire in timber structures is probably already including me within the pack of lunatics self-labelled “the burners” (this is burning man lingo for those attending “the burn”) – but, for your comfort, I was as sceptical of our capability to master uncertainty as you probably are – more so when Alex told me that the person in charge of fire safety was a self-trained man who called himself Dave-X!

Well, Phil and Alex took the idea and with the help of Michal (thanks Michal!) developed a series of tests where they demonstrated how you could control the spread rate by varying the size and location of the openings. Needless to say, this was just done with a single panel under our lab hood, very far from the reality of a 10 storey temple but truly instructive.

E-mails continue to come and go. We discussed the structural details, connections, ignition sources, etc. You can see from the pictures below that there was a lot of effort and detail nevertheless the nature of the building was truly a challenge.

It was at this point (mid June) that I decided that I should attend the burning of the temple. I thought that although it will be very difficult to arrange all the logistics and “Me” being a part of the “Burning Man” was by every possible measure wrong, I was so impressed and motivated by Alex and Phil’s commitment that I decided I will give it a try. I wanted to be there with them to see the outcome of their effort.

So, to make a long story short, I had to cancel a meeting in Australia, had to change my plane ticket to come back from Australia through the USA, rearrange my arrival in Lausanne (where I was heading afterwards) and numerous other things that I will not bore you with. At each stage I was wrestling with subconscious forces that insisted that I should not go. The truth is that it did not make any sense.

In my struggle and “self-inflicted” ignorance I confused the burning of “The Man” with the burning of “The Temple” thinking that both will happen on the Saturday (“The Man” burns on Saturday, “The Temple” on the Sunday). So when I got an e-mail from Alex that opened with the following line: “Firstly...the Temple burn is the Sunday night! I truly hope that doesn't conflict with the travel plans you've arranged!” I flipped. What an understatement! I not only had to rebook all tickets with the associated hassle and cost but once again rearrange my already messed up schedule.

My subconscious did not stop playing tricks on me. Next thing I forgot was to buy the ticket....panic e-mails came from Phil and Alex indicating that “Burning Man” was sold out for the first time in history. Replies from me followed saying that I will pay “almost” whatever it takes for a ticket. This resulted in Alex finally finding a ticket for me. I am £270 poorer but the photo below did bring happiness to me when it arrived. That ticket was my ticket and now I was going to “Burning Man” – for God sake what was I thinking!

So, I left Sydney on September 2nd and after almost 20 hours of flight, two connections, a day change and 7 hours time difference I arrived in Reno. Not good, Reno and its airport are a sad example of “Casino Culture” that I find deeply unappealing, especially when I do not know what time or day it is. Got my bag and got the keys for my car rental. Things got a bit better when I saw the upgrade Avis gave...the American version of the convertible roadster...a decapitated Chrysler! Nevertheless, given the blue skies and the thirty something degrees, the gesture brought back life to my body...thank you Avis!

I decided to split the trip in two, I was afraid of falling asleep while driving and I did not want to get lost in the desert at night. So, I drove for an hour and crashed in a nondescript hotel next to Route 80. It was 7:45 pm when I arrived, I fell asleep at about 8:15 pm and was bright awake by 11:45 pm... the wonders of jet lag. A combination of reviewing a paper draft, some work on Fire Safety Journal and answering the 300 e-mails that had arrived while I was travelling brought me to 7:30 am when I went to the supermarket to buy supplies and a coffee. Supplies? Seriously... what do you bring to the desert? So I got olives, tortilla chips, baby bells and about 100 litres of water. The rules I used were, does not need to be kept cold and I do not need cutlery to eat it. In any case, it will not be the first time I survived 36 hours without eating. So with my supplies and a giant “Americano” I jumped on the headless Chrysler on my way to the “Burning Man.”

The road is quite remarkable. Is about 2 hours of amazing scenery and towns with strange names “Nixon,” “Empire,” etc. The highlight was Pyramid Lake. I could not avoid taking a picture from the convertible. Not very good, but makes the point of the scenery and the emptiness. Finally, I arrived and went straight to “will call,” where Alex said my ticket will be. The ticket was not there! All I had was a picture of Alex with my ticket! Despite the fact that everyone seemed to know Alex, he could not be found among the 60,000 people at the camp. So, believe it or not I resorted to Dave X, they paged him and he replied, “yes, let the Professor from Ireland in!” Isn’t it ironic?

What comes after is an experience that unfortunately I am not talented enough to describe with words. So please forgive me if I do not manage to convey the true magnitude of the place. Hopefully the photographs will do a better job. I will just point to a few landmark events.

Courtesy of Alex, I happen to be staying at “Camp Armageddon.” A collection of interesting characters that included a Stanford high power graduate reconverted into an organic blueberry farmer in Chico (California), an ex Marine now running a non profit that helps people build houses out of bales of hay and Alex’s father. My years teaching at Universities have generated a natural dislike for student parents and true disdain for “reconversion,” the term “organic” and especially sentences that mix the words “renewable” with “non-profit.” Thus I was set for a true psychological challenge.

When I thought that things could not get worse, a camp across the street started blasting heavy metal music – it was indicated to me that they had been assigned the time slot from 13:00 – 14:00. Exactly at 2:00 pm the music stopped and was replaced by Alex singing Elvis tunes with a ukulele – despite my apprehensions for “The King” and the “ukulele” it was a welcome relief.

I was taken by the hosts to the dress-up room provided with a feather head piece that would have made my Inca ancestry envious and delivered to this post apocalyptic real life recreation of the world of Mad Max.

Alex brought us to “The Temple” which looked much more impressive than in any of the diagrams I had seen. It was not only massive but it was ornamented by deeply personal messages that people had written for them to burn in some form of a cathartic gesture. In the centre some sort of “Voodoo meets Buddha” rituals were being performed supported by the rhythm of African drums. I have to say, I am generally completely indifferent to these practises, nevertheless, my self-control was tested when 3 naked men tightly hugged as they screamed a consistent message. This act was a means to break free from the emasculation that society brings on the modern man. My attitude changed from total disdain to absolute bewilderment.

The work done on “The Temple” was remarkable. Alex had managed to bring most of the ideas he and Phil had discussed with me into practise. “The Temple” had just become the first real scale test of the impact of cavity compartmentation on the growth of a fire in a timber building. This is a subject of great controversy on which rests the fire safety of timber buildings.

The night changed the flavour of the camp, nudity was substituted by flamboyant feather boas and faux-fur outfits that could be the envy of any fashion victim. The sanctity of the nudity and the prayer was substituted by loud music, screaming and fireworks leading to the burning of “The Man.” The party had begun.

A man approached me, claimed being an anthropologist and asked me what I thought about life after death. As you might suspect, my answer was not what he expected. If I would have been given some warning I would have probably given him an answer that hid the simplicity of my mind, but I had no time to reflect on my story. My candid answer rewarded me with a coin, black on the one side symbolizing death and white on the other side with a Hebrew inscription symbolizing the eternity of life. The coin was intended to be a reminder of how far I still need to travel to achieve enlightenment. Point well taken!

A further reward came as a statement: “Embrace Burning Man because you are witnessing the creation of a new social order.” By the end of that night I had concluded that “Burning Man” was a reproduction of the existing social order in a context where everyone could simply be a more radical version of themselves. The power of anonymity!

Unfortunately I was deeply unprepared. The boot of the car was full of suits and ties (highly inappropriate) and the only shirt I had was an old Berkeley T-shirt. It was pointed to me by many of the “brothers” that those were symbols of society imposed cast systems that were not welcomed at “Burning Man.” Fortunately, I did not get the message until it was too late, because otherwise I might have felt compelled to adopt the more appropriate attire that consisted of nothing. That would have probably been offensive to the rest of the “burners.” My unpreparedness was so extraordinary that I did not realize that given the 1000 m altitude the temperature drastically drops at night, so while the days are terribly hot, the nights are cold. The dress-up room provided me with some colourful fabrics that enabled me to circulate at night without being cold. Sleeping was a different story, after more than 48 hours without sleeping I finally retired to the car at 2:00 am. By 5:00 am, and after turning the car on for heating 10 times, I was up and out facing what was still a roaring party.

Alex and I left at 7:30 am, after the morning yoga session, back to “The Temple.” It is important to highlight one of the most interesting yet artificial premises of this group. There are certain “good rules” that are continuously overemphasized. Respect is one of them, I did not ask to do yoga, and thus no pressure or offer was extended to me. My space was respected. Affection is another one, brothers and sisters will greet with extreme affection in a choreographed manner that made a simple hand shake feel like a crime. Garbage control was an omnipresent one, while smoking is respected, people collected the ashes and cigarette butts as if they were precious gems. It leaves you wondering where the ashes of the first “non-Burning Man” cigarette will end ... on the floor?

At “The Temple” the worshipers were politely being driven out of the safety perimeter so that the work could commence. We went through a final analysis to attempt circumventing some of the constraints imposed by different external variables. I met some of the crew including the resident pyrotechnics expert. This individual seemed to derive way too much enjoyment from his work. I have to say that I left a bit restless. The indiscriminate used of “mild explosives” and “accelerants” could overrule any natural burning features. I came back twice again that day and my concerns continue to increase. The amount of fuel that was being added (in the form of anything that will sustain a flame) was quite overwhelming. I guess a big fire had to be guaranteed and once again, technical knowledge and a “natural” fire were secondary. It reminded me so much of the Dalmarnock tests, where we were trusted only until the critical moment. When the primordial objective is to be attained, the gut feeling of the “shaman” is more trustworthy than the knowledge of the “wise man.”

Sunday night “The Temple” looked glorious, the dust lifted by a mild breeze gave it a truly extraordinary look. People gathered around the temple with a sombre attitude. This posed a striking contrast with the party atmosphere of the previous night. Having been almost entirely deprived of sleep for almost 100 hours, the quiet and sombre nature of that evening suit me well.

The fire was simultaneously started in all five satellite buildings. From the onset you could clearly identify a sequence of growth, with the spread rates decaying in an anti-clock wise manner. Very rapidly the central tower started to burn with the flames spreading upwards at a colossal speed. In a matter of seconds the entire central tower was engulfed in flames (my feeling was that the in-house pyromaniac had given it way too much juice). The fire was so intense that at 100 m (safety perimeter) the radiative heat was close to the threshold of pain. At some point I almost stood up and started walking backwards but given that I was in the front row, it would have probably not been a wise idea to encourage others to start moving away. With great difficulty I controlled myself and managed to wait until the fire started to decay. Massive firebrands were being lofted, but in the almost absence of wind, they were falling straight back to areas were the fire was smaller. The smaller temples burned in the correct sequence (although I thought it should have been clock wise) with the collapses happening in a sequential manner as originally planned.

Unfortunately I had to leave immediately after. Believe it or not I had not had enough! It took more than three hours to get out of the camp and another three hours to drive back to the same hotel where I stayed on Friday. The time of arrival was 4:30 am, the time of departure of the first of my three flights was 9:00 am. Wake up time was 6:00 am. It is Monday now and I am sitting in planes on my 20 hour trip back to Europe hoping that at some point I will compensate for the 130 hours of sleep deprivation.

How can I summarize all this... did “Burning Man” change my life? Most definitely not! Was “Burning man” a good technical experience? Most definitely yes! Both from the physical and sociological sides. I have seen what would probably be the biggest fire I will ever see, I have explored the role of cavities, I have seen the potential consequences of a timber building fire, I have revisited the roles of the technical expert and that of the artisan, confirming once again that one of the strongest determining factors in our field is that relationship – the “shaman” vs. “the fire safety expert,” “the fire fighter” vs. “the engineer.” The technical expert always looses! Until we understand that dynamic we will have a hard time making progress!

From a personal side, I have confirmed that I have deeply engrained prejudices. Rightfully so sometimes but completely unjustified other times. Every minute of my 36 hours in “Burning Man” showed me that it requires deep thinking to purposely confront social structures, boldness and posturing are only thin masks of shallow social subversion that weakly cover conformism. Thus my prejudices in that sector are just reinvigorated. In contrast I have to say that I truly enjoyed the company of Ben, Alex’s father, he emerged as a deeply intellectual individual that had mastered the art of engaging, observing, learning and teaching in a manner such that it all simply appears natural. He made me reflect on that stage of parenting that evolves from guiding a child to delivering an adult. Like him, many of the people I met were probably more than what I expected them to be. My prejudices were truly unfounded and I am very sorry for that.

One final, but most important lesson I learnt. When asked to be involved and I did not say no, I did not realize what I was doing. I was allowing myself to enjoy my work. I was engaging with work in a manner that was consistent with the reasons why I chose this profession, thus I was deriving pleasure out of work. The big lesson... this is what I am supposed to do!

It is the students with their energy, their free spirit and their imagination that allow us to engage in remarkable activities. It has made me reflect back on the highlights of my career, that it was not me but Maria who encouraged me to save a derelict museum, it was actually Adam who first suggested that I should convince the BBC to film a documentary while we burned a skyscraper, it was Sam and Johan who instigated exploding an oxygen enriched building at 5000 metres above sea level and it was Alex and Phil who told me I should be involved in “Burning Man,” I am most grateful to all of these former students, but in this occasion especially to both of you, Thank you!

Alex promised me in his last message (before I arrived): “I'm confident you'll love it out here :)” and I did. Would I ever come back to “Burning Man” maybe ... but for different reasons, with a different objective and definitely more aware of what I am doing.

Was it worth it? ... Totally worth it!