Are we pursuing energy efficiency rather than sustainability?

Sprinkler safety

By Iain Cox – Chairman of the Business Sprinkler Alliance

Back in October, I attended the Fire Sector Summit where I listened to a presentation on fire and sustainability. The session highlighted how actions we take in the name of sustainability have created some challenges from a fire perspective. Not that sustainability is wrong, but we need to think of the impact of these actions, particularly the impact of fire. Sustainability has been a key driving force in the construction sector over the past few years, where there has been a huge push towards making buildings environmentally-friendly. And indeed there has been commendable effort to ensure new builds are energy efficient. However, a number of so-called sustainable buildings have been the subject of devastating fires recently, begging the question: are we prioritising energy efficiency over building resilience and business continuity?

The issues raised at the summit still resonate a few months later. Its timeliness is reinforced by a fire which occurred recently in an unsprinklered warehouse in Daventry. The newly opened warehouse was home to one of the UK’s leading garden suppliers Gardman. In commissioning the £30m building the developer, Prologis, made a commendable commitment to achieving a BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating, wanting a sustainable design to attract a client taking on the building. BREEAM is a global sustainability rating process for projects, infrastructure, and buildings. It assesses buildings on their environmental, social and economic sustainability performance, using standards developed by BRE, the Building Research Establishment. The building was awarded a BREEAM rating because of its renewable carbon technologies, however its sustainability was put to question when the warehouse burned to the ground. This raises a fundamental question about how sustainable any building can be if it burns to the ground. Important conversations need to be had on whether fire should be more of a factor in measuring a building’s sustainability.

Currently, none of the metrics that define prized sustainability awards consider fire or its impact. A building that burns to the ground and needs to be rebuilt does not incur any penalty in these schemes. Fire is simply an issue that is not covered in those scoring schemes or judging panels for sustainability ratings and prizes.

The aspects of fire safety are noted as being covered separately by Building Regulations – the same Building Regulations which are currently under review. Isn’t it time that we also reviewed how we define sustainability and considered fire as part of this? To be truly sustainable buildings should be resilient to fire. Fire sprinkler systems are proven to be the most effective means of fire protection – they automatically activate when a fire starts and they then control or even extinguish the fire before the Fire and Rescue Service arrive. Maybe we should only be awarding the term “A Sustainable Building” to buildings which are truly and effectively protected from fire with sprinkler systems?