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Monday, September 17, 2012

Through an Architect's Eyes

Fire engineers often work closely with architects to try and incorporate fire safety systems & processes into the design process from an early stage. Ultimately it is the designers, not the fire engineers, who will change and improve the building’s design. It seems strange therefore that there would not be a single fire safety engineer working in an architecture practice, anywhere in the world. The role just did not exist.
Well, not until this year.
For the past 8 months one member of the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh worked at Foster +Partners to help designers create fundamentally fire safe buildings. This unique experience was one of several progressive ideas conceived at the 2011 LRET Conference in Edinburgh and is the latest collaborative initiative between Foster + Partners and the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering.
It was initially thought that the Fire Engineer employed in this role would solve fire safety problems for the design team (including architects and engineers). After all that’s what engineers do: solve problems. In fact the individual working at F+P would solve very few fire problems and would do very little ‘engineering’. The ‘In-House Fire Safety Engineer’ would become known as the ‘Fire Safety Advisor’ or more simply, the ‘Fire Guy’.
The reason for the change was simple. If specific fire safety problems were outsourced to a fire engineer – even an in-house one – the lack of integration would mean architects would have to compromise on other parts of the design for the fire strategy to work.
The Fire Guy needed to have three roles, not one, of which engineering was the third and last. The three roles would be:
1) To identify and define problems using fundamental assumptions only i.e. assumptions that remain valid irrespective of the context in which they are applied. Re-defining and explaining why each problem was indeed a problem improved designers’ understanding of the criteria they should aim to achieve, and significantly expanded the range of choices available to them.
F+P designers and engineers previously defined problems purely in terms of code compliance – which was logical in the absence of specialist fire safety knowledge. If a design did not comply with the codes, it was a fire safety problem. However, due to the irregular nature of the structures being designed, the assumptions on which the codes were based were not always valid; a prescriptive solution intended for a 3m-high ceiling would not deliver the same performance if applied to a ceiling 17m high and angled at 70°. Therefore a problem defined purely on the basis of code-compliance was not necessarily a fire safety problem.

2) The second role, once the architects had gained a clear understanding of the fire safety aims, was to give designers the opportunity to achieve the aims autonomously. Architects have to consider every variable associated with the design of a building, including aesthetics, functionality, cost, environmental sustainability, structural integrity, M&E serviceability and code compliance among a plethora of other variables, all of which must be integrated if the building’s design is to be optimised. Once the architects knew what they were trying to achieve, they were able to create some extraordinarily innovative solutions to solve fire safety problems, all of which were optimised for their unique building.
Architects lacked confidence in their own ability to create fire safe solutions and would yield to the recommendations of fire safety ‘experts’ often despite knowing that their own solutions made sense conceptually. The fire safety advisor was able to assess and criticise solutions put forward by both the architects and fire experts to establish which one would be the most effective. In many cases it was the solution put forward by the architects but in either case the discussion led to increased understanding of the issues involved and greater confidence in the chosen solution.

3) The third and final role of a fire safety advisor was to create a fire-safe solution and ‘prove’ its effectiveness. In reality this rarely happened. Reviewing drawings and producing fire safe designs was easy; doing it in a way that would create a fully optimised building design was not. A fire safety engineer has just one variable to work with, and has the luxury to choose from literally thousands of possible solutions. The architect meanwhile must iterate the building’s design and compromise between variables, eventually reaching a fully optimised solution. The in-house fire safety advisor was only asked to create solutions if/when the architects were unable to produce viable solutions of their own. This happened just once during the entire 8-month period at Foster + Partners.

The experience demonstrated the potential for a new role in fire safety; one where a fire safety advisor works directly for an architecture practice to help incorporate fire safety systems & processes into the building’s design. In hindsight it is rather unsurprising that it has taken this long to create such a role. It requires specialist education that, at the moment, cannot be obtained anywhere in the world.

Perhaps someday someone will create such an education system…

1 comment:

Kate Anderson said...

Interesting article Mike.

I just wanted to take issue with your comment:
"there would not be a single fire safety engineer working in an architecture practice, anywhere in the world"

I work for AECOM & they employ both Architects and Fire Engineers as do Mott MacDonald and I'm sure there are other large companies employing Fire engineers & Architects. Perhaps the role doesn't exist in purely architectural firms? I don’t disagree that it would be great to have fire engineers in more architectural firms but from my (albeit brief) experience here, we do work very closely with Architects in order to reach fire engineering solutions as buildings are being designed.