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Thursday, March 21, 2013

15th IStructE Young Researchers' Conference

On 14 March 2013, the 15th Annual Young Researchers’ Conference took place at the IStructE International HQ in London. It was attended by 71 postgraduate students from across the UK including Fabio Battistini, Payam Khazaeinejad, Mohamed Kiari, Cristian Maluk, Emma McIntyre, Ieuan Rickard and Holly Smith from the University of Edinburgh. There were also a number of experienced industry and research based professionals to lead the judging. The conference was started with a warm welcome from Ian Firth (Vice President of the IStructE) and was followed by an interesting Keynote Address from Emeritus Professor David Nethercot (Imperial College London) where he discussed the benefits of engineering research.  The eight oral presentations were split into three sections: Use of Structural Steel, Catastrophic Structural Collapse and Novel Material Use. There was a particularly interesting talk from Joseph Gattas on “Morphing Origami Panels: Geometry and Construction” where they sought to manipulate materials to allow for collapsible and patchable structures for use by the Ministry of Defence. In both presentations and posters there were four fire related topics, with three from the University of Edinburgh. Holly Smith presented her PhD entitled Punching Shear of Reinforced Concrete Slabs in Fire, Cristian Maluk presented his poster entitled Study of Heat-Induced Concrete Spalling Using a Novel Fire Testing Methodology and Emma McIntyre presented her poster entitled Fire Performance of FRP Reinforced Concrete: Bond Deterioration at Elevated Temperature. 

Oral & Poster Presenter Winners with IStructE Vice President Ian Firth
There were prizes in both the oral and presentation categories with Holly placing second and Emma placing joint 1st respectively. There were both awarded £300 and a book entitled Biomimicry in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn. The Young Researchers’ Conference is always a thoroughly enjoyable day with a vast array of topics to be debated, and a great networking opportunity for young postgraduates.

 The 2013 Conference was sponsored by Arup, Atkins, Flint & Neill, Ramboll, S-FRAME Software (UK) Ltd, The Institution of Civil Engineers and The Institution of Structural Engineers Research Fund.

Emma McIntyre & Holly Smith

(Photo taken from IStructE Website:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Structural Fire Testing in the 18th Century

The following is a re-print of a featured article that we wrote that was published in this month's Fire Safety Science News (IAFSS). The issue can be downloaded in full here:

A digitisation project to archive early fire test reports (with both structural fire engineering and fire dynamics considered) is underway at the University of Edinburgh and the digitised documents will soon be publicly accessible (A September target this year). This collection of historical documents forms the basis of our current understanding in fire science and engineering and provides context for many current research questions. Summarised below is one fascinating example of the records that will be preserved in the archive. The following accounts illustrate some of the issues with using fire test results obtained in small compartments to design fire protection for large compartments in real buildings. Today, 200 years later, fire scientists and engineers still wrestle with how real fires influence real structures.

Charles Mahon can be considered as one of the first scientists to test and attempt to rationally understand the behaviour of a building exposed to fire. In 1777, at the age of 25, Mahon developed principles and a system for fire protection of timber buildings. His hypothesis was that a plaster made of water, sand, lime, and hay could be applied to timber elements to provide fire protection. Given that party walls had begun to show good ability at stopping horizontal fire spread, Mahon concerned himself with the ability to stop vertical fire spread in a building by compartmentalising rooms. Given the damage caused by conflagrations at the time, Mahon aimed to halt the progress of fires without reliance on water. In his words [1]:

“… to show how effectually even a wooden building, if secured according to my new method would stop the progress of the flames on that side, without any assistance from fire-engines.” – C. Mahon

Mahon constructed a two-storey structure (compartments of approx. 8m x 5m), and tested it under exposure to fire. The lower room of the building was filled with wood shavings and furniture pieces then set alight. Neither pyrometers nor thermocouples were available at the time to measure temperatures – Mahon also never reported the duration of the fires. There was therefore no quantitative way to measure heat transmission through the floors or walls. Mahon instead attempted to demonstrate the ‘lack’ of heat transmission through the floor in what must be considered a very peculiar manner. During the test, and incredibly, Mahon entertained guests on the floor above the fire compartment. Delegates included William Pitt (previously Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), the President of the Royal Society, the Lord Mayor of London, and several foreign ministers – each guest was given ice cream to enjoy as the fire raged below them [2]. The fire was sufficiently hot to melt the windows on the lower room. The floor boards of the lower room remained intact, but were charred – however more importantly to Mahon and his guests, no discomfort was experienced as they socialized and ate ice cream directly above the inferno. Indeed, it was alleged that some of the guests decided to walk around the room barefoot during the experiment to test whether they could feel heat from the fire. Little science in this experiment existed outside qualitative observation; no quantitative analysis of the fire or the structural reactions were made. Mahon’s fireproofing plaster was not patented – probably owing to its similarity to other common plasters used at the time. However, applying plaster for the purpose of fire protection (and indeed considering the need for fire protection) was deemed novel during the Georgian era. 

The plaster was advocated for use in construction by the Associated Architects Committee in 1793 [3] based upon the results of repeated fire tests conducted by a group of researchers headed by Henry Holland. However, Mahon’s test conditions were not replicated identically in these tests. Holland’s research group changed the composition of the plaster by adding plaster of Paris, screened rubbish, brick debris, coal ashes and other materials in order to make strong cement. They also procured a Georgian town house (dimensions unavailable) and subjected each room to compartment fires. Holland varied the fuel load in each room by using charcoal, tar and wood. The ventilation conditions were also varied to control flaming during these ‘repeat’ tests. No measurements were made to assess the severity of the test fires; however the duration of each test was recorded and ranged between 1 and nearly 4 h. Some observations suggested issues with the plaster’s ability to withstand fire (the plaster was found to dry out and crumble), but it was felt that, since the fires did not propagate to adjacent rooms, the performance of the plaster was satisfactory. Holland concluded, without attempting to experiment and giving no justification, that the amount of fire protection should be doubled in buildings requiring more security from fire. Quoting the report:

“In buildings that require a more than ordinary degree of security,… [Any] means of prevention, must be doubled; in which case, the committee are warranted to say, that it will effectually resist the strongest fire.” – H. Holland

In 1794, Mahon`s plaster (as well as several other fireproofing technologies of the time) was used in the construction of floors and stairs in the mostly timber-framed Drury Lane Theatre (Theatre Royal) in London. Henry Holland, who was responsible for the 1793 fire tests, was retained as the architect of the theatre [4]. The Drury Lane Theatre was considered the most advanced fire-proofed building of the time. Four water reservoirs were installed on the roof in order to quell any fire that could occur. However, during theatrical performances, these reservoirs served another purpose: the tanks were used to produce real waterfalls and lakes on stage – at the expense of fire fighting. An iron curtain was also installed to separate the stage from the audience, but after 15 years it was said to be rusted and non-functional. In 1809, the theatre caught fire while its water tanks were empty [5] and the fireproofing was insufficient to protect the building. The building collapsed within 30 min – there was no reported life loss (Figure 1).

The Drury Lane Theatre during and after fire, from Londina Illustrata circa 1825.

Henry Holland passed away in 1806; therefore little historical commentary on the effect of the fireproofing measures at the Drury Lane Theatre survives today. Aside from providing an interesting ice cream anecdote, the above story reminds us of some dangers in misinterpreting or over interpreting structural fire test results. The collapse of the Drury Lane Theatre illustrates the need to ensure that fire protection technologies are appropriately designed for the conditions to which they will be exposed (fuel load, ventilation conditions, scale, etc). Although fire science and engineering have evolved significantly since the work of Mahon and Holland, we are still today wrestling with the concept of how real fires influence real structural behaviour. This story therefore deserves preservation as a cautionary tale in fire engineering. Digitised copies of the public domain reports which have been used to construct this article will be featured on the Open Access Historical Documents of Fire Safety Engineering Collection when the project officially launches ( 

Acknowledgements: This digitisation project has been sponsored by a University of Edinburgh Alumni Innovation Initiative Grant 2012-13. Thanks to Audrey Roy-Poirier and Luke Bisby for providing comments on this article.

1. Mahon. Philosophical transactions 68:2. July 1778
2. Public Characters. Vol 3. 603 pp. 1801.
3. Holland. Resolutions of Associated Architects. 1793.
4. Carter. Journal of Society of Architectural Historians. 26(3). 1967.
5. Sheppard. Survey of London. 1970.

Monday, March 11, 2013

PhD Studentship in the Sociology of Fire Safety

ITSAFE studentship

Applications are invited for a +3-year PhD studentship, funded by the University of Edinburgh’s College of Humanities and Social Science, to investigate a fire safety related topic. This studentship is available as part of the Integrating Social and Technical Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering and Expertise (IT-SAFE) project, which is supported by the University of Edinburgh, The Ove Arup Foundation, and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Potential topics include the following:

A history of fire regulation and disasters
Fire safety and regulatory lock-in: an inter- and intra-national comparative study
Practice and rule-followingin the application of building codes for fire safety
Socio-economic factors, household practices, and fire risk
The effect of Homes in Multiple Occupancy (HMO) legislation on fire deaths in the UK
A sociology of fire safety knowledge
Simulation and human factors in evacuation planning
Smart homes, ICTs, and fire safety
Do fire safety regulations impede environmentally-friendly buildings?
The role of insurance companies and risk assessment in fire safety practice
Firefighters, architects, and lay/expert knowledge: boundary work, professional interests, and fire safety implementation
What does it mean to be a firefighter?
Users, the ‘responsible person’, and day-to-day ‘enactment’ of building regulations

Potential applicants might be interested inthis lecture by former University of Edinburgh Professor, Jose Torero:

Applicants should hold a good first degree, and may be expected to undertake further training as part of the first year.This PhD will be supervised by Professor Robin Williams and Dr Graham Spinardi.

Informal inquiries and expressions of interest including a short CV can be directed towards

For more information about Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh, see:

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Arup Professor of Fire and Structures

Arup is supporting the five year appointment of Dr Luke Bisby as the first Arup Professor of Fire and Structures at the University of Edinburgh.

The appointment follows on from Dr Bisby’s prior appointment as the Ove Arup Foundation/Royal Academy of Engineering Senior Research Fellow in Structures in Fire.

The aim of this new appointment is to help move the concept of structural fire engineering from a specialist interest area to a core engineering discipline which is fully integrated into the building design process. When realized, this will benefit the design and construction of the built environment through a combination of capital cost reductions, improved safety and structural resilience, enhanced property protection and business continuity, greater overall sustainability and structural optimization.
“Arup has been the acknowledged world leader in performance based fire engineering for more than four decades and I am delighted to take up this inaugural role at Edinburgh University. My work will benefit Arup through early access to research results and from an ability to request research in support of specific commercial needs. In turn, my research group will benefit from insights into real engineering problems.”
Dr Luke Bisby
“Despite great advances in knowledge during the past three decades, in most cases the design of structures to resist the effects of fires remains surprisingly over-simplified; relatively little performance based structural engineering is performed during the fire safety design of a building. The work Dr Bisby undertakes in his new role will be invaluable in developing an improved understanding of the impacts of fire in the built environment and, as fire engineers, we will be able to respond to cutting edge research to continually improve our work.”
Barbara Lane, Director, Arup

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Friday, March 01, 2013

Edinburgh Travelling Fire Tests: Day 29 Video Blog

Thursday 28th February 2013