The catastrophic fire at the historic and world-renowned Glasgow School of Art (GSoA) on the 15th June is sadly another sharp reminder of the devastating impact of fires. Thankfully there were no injuries, but the financial implication of the second massive fire in four years and the wider impact to the school, local businesses and the community is undeniable. Indeed some two weeks later the actions to make the area safe continue, whilst residents and local business cannot return to their lives. With experts debating the feasibility of another restoration and putting a rebuild figure of at least £100 million, on top of the £35 million for the current reconstruction, the true cost of fire is considerable. It reminds us all that fire doesn’t discriminate and remains the greatest single threat to our heritage, which in the case of the GSoA may, tragically, be lost.
Despite more than 120 firefighters tackling the blaze, the fire completely gutted the iconic and much-loved Mackintosh building and the neighbouring O2 ABC music venue and Campus nightclub. The cost to all three is huge and whilst the previous fire at the School of Art in 2014 had led to the specification of an automatic protection system, the system was not yet fully fitted. A fire safety strategy during refurbishment had been adopted but it was clearly not robust enough to tackle a fire on this scale.
Whilst sprinklers can be fitted in buildings throughout construction, particularly in the case of timber frame buildings, designers and stakeholders must always look at the long term life of a building. In the case of the Mackintosh building, the stakeholders should be applauded for planning to install a protection system but sadly fire will always find the weak link, and the weak link in this case was in the construction phase. Put simply, you cannot let your guard down when it comes to fire.
From heritage buildings to other sectors including hotels, healthcare, commercial and industrial, having sprinklers fitted protects buildings in the long run. They safeguard against potentially disastrous losses such as in Glasgow and also aid with life safety. Above all they maintain business continuity so in the event of a fire, many businesses find they are back up and running in a matter of hours.
The BSA is calling for better education on the substantial benefits that fire sprinklers can deliver to the business community and wider economy. Fire does not discriminate; whether it is a university, a car park a warehouse or an office, fires happen on a regular basis. However, they can be contained and extinguished by systems such as sprinklers to ensure that life is not put at risk and businesses, jobs and the economy are protected.
I strongly believe that systems such as automatic fire sprinklers should be considered more readily as a viable option right across the built environment whether it is a hospital, school, retail or leisure facility or commercial and industrial building. Today automatic fire sprinklers are not widely used in the UK because the Guidance rarely prescribes their use. Yet automatic fire sprinklers prevent large fires because they activate automatically over a fire, controlling or even extinguishing the fire before the Fire and Rescue Service arrive. They therefore save lives and protect firefighters who attend incidents – but they also prevent significant damage or destruction of a building by fire. Preserving our buildings and infrastructure should be considered as an essential element of fire safety too.