Green buildings have gained global acceptance and adoption as the world pushes toward a carbon-free economy.
The buildings incorporate climate-smart practices and technologies to responsibly use key resources like energy, water and land. Green buildings may employ energy-efficient lighting, HVAC systems, and low-flow water fixtures to reduce their carbon footprint.
The savings rack up. According to a recent Morgan Stanley Research report, “Building Energy Efficiency,” the return on investment in energy-efficient features is substantial; some estimates, say it can lower cost of ownership for commercial buildings by 50%.
But how do these innovations impact fire safety? This is becoming an increasingly important consideration as it’s projected that all new buildings will be green buildings by 2030.
Brian Meacham, managing principal of Meacham Associates, studied the impacts of green buildings on fire safety for a decade. In 2011, he participated in a Research Foundation report that identified fire safety concerns and created a risk matrix for green buildings.
Since then, he said, we’ve seen the dangers of fire in green buildings play out. The most notable incident was a 300,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse fire in Delanco, New Jersey. The facility burned to the ground. And the presence of solar panels on the Dietz & Watson warehouse kept firefighters off the roof.
Margaret McNamee, a professor at Lund University, along with Meacham, recently updated the Research Foundation report and presented their findings in an NFPA webinar titled, “Fire Safety Challenges of ‘Green’ Buildings and Attributes.”
Meacham summed up fire safety for green buildings in the webinar by saying, “Green buildings are designed and are there to protect the environment, but we also have a societal objective in keeping people safe from fire.”
What is Green?
The World Green Building Council defines a green building as “a building that in its design, construction, or operation, reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts, on our climate and natural environment. ‘Green’ buildings preserve precious natural resources and improve our quality of life.”
“A green building is a building that is trying to be more sustainable,” said McNamee in the webinar.
Sustainable strategies might reduce fossil fuel use through natural lighting and ventilation, increased insulation, green or blue roofs, or by incorporating solar energy sources. These buildings also may use sustainable resources in construction, like bamboo flooring instead of wood, recycled materials, and timber construction.
“These strategies have clear fire safety implications,” McNamee warned.
What are the biggest contributors to fire problems?
New building materials can pose risks such as ignition, explosion, fumes and shock hazards, and may also impact fire operations by limiting water availability, suppression effectiveness, access to fire apparatus, operations and more, stressed McNamee.
Statistics show that some metal class materials (MCM) and combustible insulation are contributing factors in reduced fire safety. For example, officials believe flammable exterior cladding worsened the Grenfell Tower fire in the United Kingdom in 2017. Seventy people died when they could not escape the building after the exterior panels caught fire.
Photovoltaic panels (solar panels) and combustible foam also pose fire safety issues as can timber construction. Further, advancements such as building-integrated carbon capture and photovoltaics also impact fire safety. Meacham noted in the webinar. “Some materials being used are plastics like PET and other materials that we know are combustible. We have to keep a watch on that.”
Integrating photovoltaic panels into facility construction provides great sustainability benefits. “But it may also present hazards or risks of concern,” he said.
Novel materials and trends also up risk. Stabilized aluminum foam and inflated steel structures, for instance, use less material but both aluminum and steel perform very poorly under high temperatures.
Buildings that use modern technologies in construction, like 3D printing, can adversely impact fire safety. For instance, 3D printing often uses combustible materials, and you need to be “careful about that,” he said.
More battery technology use in buildings also presents fire risk. A massive lithium battery fire in Morris, Illinois, offers a prime example of the danger batteries pose to firefighters and the public. The building contained 100 tons of batteries that ignited, prompting area evacuations as firefighters battled the blaze for days. “These risks must be addressed and thought about as we go forward,” Meacham said.
He added, “It’s likely we will continue to see things evolve as we have the New Green Deal in Europe and the current administration in the U.S. promoting a climate plan and an investment in energy technologies and sustainability. We can expect new materials to develop, and we need to think about that from a fire safety perspective.”
The Devil is in the Details
“How can we think about sustainability and fire safety together so we can plan for the future and build sustainable and safe buildings,” McNamee asked in the webinar.
She recommends resiliency, which is the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from and more successfully adapt to adverse events. In other words, she said, “plan upfront to minimize future loss, disruption and cost.”
Improving fire safety requires thinking about fire safety as building operators’ plan for sustainability objectives. She said, “Preparation can reduce vulnerability and increase resiliency. If we think of resiliency from the start, we can avoid a loss of functionality from a fire itself.”
Fire resiliency strategies can include preventing fire ignition and managing fire impacts through the control of heat energy sources, fuel interactions, and better fire management. “Prevent the fire before it starts or try your best to keep the fire small,” she said. “We can use this type of thinking for sustainability objectives as well.”
Often, fire resiliency and sustainability can compete and occur in a vacuum without proper communication. “When we know that sustainability objectives might cause some fire safety hazard problems, then building regulatory systems usually do an excellent job of making sure we achieve both,” she said. “That’s where learning from fire instances comes into effect. We can learn that sustainability has had some fire safety implications. Steps are then taken to introduce regulatory fixes.
“But it’s not good enough to always be reacting to fire instances that occurred,” she added. “We need to consider fire safety and sustainability at the same time. There needs to be similar weight between the two.”
It’s critical to consider, for example, how energy reduction, material reduction, or more insulation will impact fire dynamics. How will a lower CO2 footprint impact structural stability? Or how will a double-skin facade affect fire spread?
“There is a whole slew of fire safety objectives that conflict with sustainability objectives,” she said, “But we don’t think it has to be that way. By combining sustainability with fire resiliency, we can create a framework that is safer overall.”
“A lot has been done through regulations and guidelines to address many fire safety hazards and risks associated with green buildings,” added Meacham. “This is evolving and every year new code changes are put forward.”
Owners of industrial facilities and fire brigades must stay on top of these changing regulations and modify facilities to meet new codes. For instance, there are now guidelines, installation standards, and fire service guidance and best practices for photovoltaic systems that didn’t exist a decade ago.
“Some fire departments have posted procedures to follow when installing photovoltaics,” Meacham said. “There’s also been big research projects on battery systems.”
Energy storage, wall and roof systems are advancing as well. Many of this involves new test methods, stated Meacham. For instance, Europe is at work to develop new facade system fire tests. “Right now, each country has its own approach,” he says. “But we are a global environment where designers and products move all around the world. We need standardized tests and test procedures.”
Information for Firefighters
There’s a wealth of information surrounding sustainable materials for firefighters concerned about fire safety in green buildings.
The NFPA offers resources on this topic. Its research covers photovoltaic system fires, electric vehicle fires, battery fires and more. “There is so much available through the foundation that is helpful,” he said.
The UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute also has become a critical resource, Meacham noted. The UL offers a wealth of fire dynamics data and fire performance data to inform fire service on firefighting tactics and responses.
“All of this is helpful as materials change, construction practices change, material reduction for sustainability occurs, and economy becomes important, to determine what it means for fire service,” he said.
He concluded, “Though there are definite needs for further analysis and research,” one fact remains, “we need to create a safer build environment so that we maintain fire resiliency as we achieve sustainability.”
To listen to the full webinar at the NFPA Research Foundation, click https://www.nfpa.org/Training-and-Events/By-type/Webinars.