Are we in the process of prohibiting our future? - Briab - Brand, Risk & Säkerhet


Are we in the process of prohibiting our future?

In many countries, fire protection requirements are among the oldest requirements in existence. In Sweden, they are included in our very first legislation. Conflagrations could threaten entire cities and cause destruction on a massive scale. Banning activities and materials that can cause fires, stricter accountability, was the means used to protect us from fire. This was a robust – but expensive – principle. Innovation and new solutions were discouraged, and building costs increased.

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Against that background, Sweden was one of the first countries to introduce material-neutral functional legislation. This enabled the development and use of new building materials, energy-efficient facade technologies could be implemented, and tall buildings could be built in wood. The scope for innovation increased.

Roles and responsibilities haven’t kept up

Developments in the UK regarding fire protection regulations have resembled those of Sweden. Performance-based regulations were introduced as early as the 1980s. Sweden has a deregulated control system where private actors have gradually gained more influence, with the aim of encouraging innovation within the building industry. At the same time, the legal structures, roles and responsibilities haven’t kept up. The disastrous fire in the Grenfell Tower in 2017 resulted in a system review, which revealed major shortcomings in the British regulatory and control systems.

Going backwards?

The initial reaction from British authorities is to prohibit flammable materials on the exterior walls of tall buildings. The principle of material neutrality, and of legislating by way of function-based requirements, is being weakened. Instead of relating various fire risks to the specifics of the building, many are now arguing for a return to blunt and expensive solutions that apply to every building. We can learn a lot from the fire in the Grenfell Tower, both from a technical and a systems perspective. But there is always a risk of over-regulation due to a reactive approach to the risk we face.


Systems, not materials, the problem

The Hackitt Report, which followed Grenfell, has not highlighted a need to prohibit materials. Rather, it points to various systemic shortcomings, which each contributed to a failing system that made the fire possible. The report emphasizes the considerable lack of information and the absence of functioning quality controls through the different phases of construction. In this respect, the construction industry is decades behind the manufacturing industry. It is not possible to follow the ways in which design and implementation change over time. Buildings that are planned end up not being built as originally intended, and in practice they don’t work as intended. Because of the huge lack of information, it’s hard to follow decision-making processes, and to demand accountability. The legal repercussions are difficult and complex. Just like with the 2007 Potatisåkern fire in Malmö, Sweden, it often ends with the involved parties being absolved due to a lack of evidence.

Golden thread of information

Dame Judith Hackitt, who led the review after the Grenfell fire, stresses the need for a golden thread of information running through a building’s entire life cycle. Without this, it’s not possible to create audit trails or to secure the information chain. Digital workflows and Building Information Modeling (BIM) are seen as requirements for ensuring better information flows between different parties and phases in the lifetime of a structure. New technology and digitalization lead to greater efficiency, and a better information flow can facilitate better communication, control and security with fewer defects, without increasing costs.

Execution and checks

Following major disasters, we often see that shortcomings in information and communication play a key role in the unthinkable happening. The inability to build as we design, and difficulties in checking are more often a result of communication problems. The easy solution is to do like in the Middle Ages – to prohibit the specific dangers.

Responsibility and communication

Here we need to ask ourselves, what is the actual problem, and what is the best solution – in the long term? New approaches in the construction sector, which is in the process of digitalization, will pave the way for completely new risk management techniques. So we can feel confident that what is designed, ends up being built properly. Communication and responsibilities become clearer, resulting in a culture where you have a better overview of the situation. Problems are identified earlier, are more profitable to remedy, and can be solved in collaboration.

BIM – an important part of the future

Digital workflows and BIM for fire protection are already here, and will soon take on new forms. We use these tools and methods every day in ongoing projects, as we aim for better information flows and quality. Prohibition is not the way forward – the new technologies are already here. Rather, we need to use them to accelerate innovation and sustainable building practices.

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