Fire and life safety in high-rise builds

Director of fire & life safety and acoustics at AESG Peter Van Gorp considers the elements that go into making tall buildings safer.

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With comprehensive fire and life safety codes being rolled out across the region, the outlook for fire and life safety in modern massive buildings is positive.
With comprehensive fire and life safety codes being rolled out across the region, the outlook for fire and life safety in modern massive buildings is positive.

Skyscrapers are an unmissable characteristic of the skylines of Middle East cities, and Dubai alone is home to nearly 1,000 high-rise buildings.

According to an article by the World Economic Forum, construction has been relentless in the UAE for decades, and much of that development has been vertically-oriented.

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In this global race to compete by building ever taller skyscrapers, it is pivotal for fire and life safety to be a topmost priority, with sustained investment in infrastructure, equipment and maintenance to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all building occupants.

In recent years, reports of large-scale fires in high-rise buildings have regularly made their way into headlines.

This is perhaps not surprising as the number of fires is, after all, directly proportional to the number of buildings.

We can expect, therefore, that as the number of buildings increases, inevitably, the number of fires will increase as well.

However, risk of incident scales more rapidly with increases in the size and complexity of buildings.

This presents a challenge to building owners in the region which is further exacerbated through the ineffective application of the best fire safety practices to building façade design, such as not utilising the right materials, or applying them in an incorrect manner.

With fire codes – such as the recent UAE Fire & Life Safety Code of Practice, which has received international recognition – it is a good time to review where we stand as a region, and highlight the ways in which we can improve, and thus lay the ground-work for greater fire safety even in modern massive buildings.

Due Diligence in Design 
While it was not necessarily the case a decade ago, it is encouraging to see that most, if not all, large buildings today involve fire and life safety consultants from the design phase itself.

As practitioners of the field, AESG does work a lot with architects in these key initial phases, and while we don’t want to put a limit on their creativity, we do have to make sure that their designs are fit for purpose from a fire and life safety point of view from the very onset.

We have found that the best way to achieve this is to conduct workshops that involve the architectural team wherein you try to find creative solutions for fire and life safety issues while still maintaining the architectural objectives.

Then there are the essential design best practices that must be followed.

For example, the building core mostly consists of the staircase enclosures. It is important to have those elements sized and located correctly.

If the staircases are inappropriately located, you may end up with corridor travel distances to the exits that are non-compliant.

As a general rule, you should always allow for occupants to escape in at least two different directions from a fire so that the ‘common path of travel’ will be limited.

Another essential factor that must be addressed in the initial stage of the design is the firefighting access.

Different buildings have different requirements. Especially in the case of high-rise buildings, it is essential that a major portion of the building perimeter be directly accessible to fire trucks.

Needless to say, that non-compliance to these basics will have major consequences and could even require complete re-design.

In this way, the mismanagement of fire and life safety could significantly impact project timelines and result in fines and penalties.

Focusing on the Finer Points
The essential fire safety systems for any high-rise building are a means of egress; construction and compartmentation; fire protection systems; fire detection and alarm systems; smoke management; and as previously highlighted, fire access.

While each of these aspects is addressed in all local and international building safety codes, it is hard to say which is more essential than the other. Even fire engineers often have endless discussions regarding precisely this.

So, while the importance can be debated, it is the fine points of each that should be understood and addressed.

For example, properly installed construction and compartmentation falls under so called passive fire protection and is in general less prone to failure as active fire protection systems – meaning maintenance efforts can be concentrated on the latter.

The means of escape on the other hand requires not only to be properly designed and installed, but also maintained.

I have seen reinforced staircase enclosures equipped with staircase pressurisation to keep the smoke out in case of fire.

The staircase doors, however, were kept in their open positions with tenants using the staircase as a bicycle storage facility, even going so far as to chain their bicycles to the guardrails in the staircase.

Obviously, this will make the staircase, which is an essential element of the fire and life safety of the building, useless and even dangerous to use in the case of an emergency.

Scope for Improvement
While I have highlighted how fire and life safety planning in the design phases can be improved, for the most part the practice is given due attention during the initial stages.

There is, however, significant room for improvement in the follow up i.e. during construction and in the subsequent maintenance of the building.

Contractors, facility managers and building owners need to understand that maintaining standards is an ongoing process and they must therefore put more and more emphasis on fire and life safety site supervision.

A Note on Fire Codes
Newly introduced regional fire codes are already being implemented in new projects.

However, this does not entirely address the large majority of high-rise buildings that have already been constructed.

It is not always easy to retrofit buildings, and the process is often costly and frustrating for the owners – especially when their buildings have only recently been commissioned.

In the case of a modification to a building, that part of the building and everything related to it with regard to fire and life safety will be required to be in line with the new regulations as well.

At AESG, we are getting an increasing number of enquiries to get involved in upgrading existing buildings from the perspective of fire and life safety, particularly looking at façade upgrades.

Doing so starts with an assessment which all too often leaves the owners with the frightening realisation that their fire and life safety situation is even worse than they expected.

However, knowledge is power and only when the shortcomings have been identified can corrective action be taken.

With comprehensive fire and life safety codes being rolled out across the region, the outlook for fire and life safety in modern massive buildings is positive.

Owners must, however, remain aware that this is a practice that must be followed and evaluated through the life of their buildings.

Once this becomes common practice, I have no doubt that skyscrapers in the Middle East will shine bright for all the right reasons.

Importance of Collaboration
The proper installation and maintenance of fire safety systems requires close co-ordination from architects, developers, façade engineers and other teams.

At AESG, our integrated approach between the fire and life safety, façade, MEP, and commissioning teams has resulted in projects being fully equipped to ensure the highest level of fire and life safety being implemented.

It is such concerted efforts that will result in the delivery of projects that stand tall against the tests of time.

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