Adaptability is key in fire engineering

The fire engineer’s role in creating and managing flexible and adaptable buildings

Flexibility and adaptability are the first points on the list of requirements for new science and technology buildings. In terms of reoccurrence, these characteristics are trumped only by clients looking for genuine sustainability in their buildings, although you could say that ensuring that buildings are flexible and adaptable falls under the broader heading of sustainability as well. Single-purpose buildings are out, as clients request structures that can bend and flex to accommodate new and changing needs. This shift has been accelerated by the pandemic, which is forcing a re-evaluation of working environments.

Science and technology, in its very nature, changes all the time. Research moves on, funding is diverted and reallocated, and different equipment and environments are needed for different projects. Buildings need to be flexible to accommodate these shifts, and there are many reasons why buildings fail to deliver this. Fire safety is often seen as a barrier to flexibility, particularly in more complex buildings. There are two reasons for this – firstly, a poor understanding of fire safety by management teams and users, and secondly, a lack of planning and forethought during the design of the building.

Effective research environment Jack Copland Centre looking into the busy labs
Buro Happold’s experts worked on the Jack Copland Centre, an example of energy efficient and resilient design, which will stand the test of time due to its ability to adapt to suit the requirements of the service itself. Image: Andrew Lee

Maintaining flexibility at the design stage

Engagement with stakeholders is key. Design teams need to communicate properly with the right people, so our teams fully understand the degree and type of flexibility that is required. These stakeholders consist of both the users and the management teams and fire officers who ultimately have to maintain the building and will be responsible for managing change throughout the building’s lifetime. Fire engineers should have an active role in these discussions as they will be creating a fire strategy for the building that will either allow flexibility or prevent it. They are responsible for communicating the short, medium and long-term consequences of a design to the clients and users.

One example of this lies with cost savings. A reduction in cost at the design and build stages can often be dwarfed by the costs incurred throughout the lifespan of the building, should the fire strategy for the building be poorly designed. Sprinklers, as an example, are often seen as not necessary, with priority given to other fire-fighting equipment, such as extinguishers and fire blankets. However, the installation in sprinklers reduces risk, enabling significantly more flexibility in the use of buildings whilst also reducing insurance premiums. Clients should also be advised that sprinklers are one of the safest options, should a fire take place. If a fire occurs, most people do not automatically know where to reach for an extinguisher. Sprinklers always start automatically, allowing people to escape from the heat and smoke.

Fire engineers should have an active role in design discussions as they will be creating a fire strategy for the building that will either allow flexibility or prevent it. Image: Adobe Stock

Knowing a building from design to demolition – why Golden Thread helps with adaptability

Achieving flexible and adaptable buildings requires a complete understanding of a building from a fire safety point of view. That knowledge is always there at the start of a build, but often becomes fragmented, inaccessible and incomplete over time. This is where the Golden Thread of information, as mentioned in the Hackett Report, is of vital importance.

Without adequate information on how a building has been designed and built, there is little scope for making changes whilst ensuring safety in the building. Furthermore, when changes are made during a building’s lifetime, documenting them is just as important, so that future users and management teams understand how that building works. Ultimately, this falls under the remit of the Responsible Person under The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and any changes should be picked up during the annual fire risk assessment.

In science buildings, there is often a greater level of management, given the increased risk associated with the work. Often you will find that there is a fire officer whose responsibility is to review and monitor any changes to the building. Part of this role is ensuring that the people who are changing the fire strategy or the fire safety systems within the building are competent and suitably qualified. This includes recognising when input from a third party, such as a fire engineer, is required. Owners, managers, and users should take a proactive approach to fire safety and actively pursue a holistic understanding of their buildings, so that when change happens, it can be implemented quickly and safely within the existing constraints of the building.

The Research Institute – where a higher risk profiles created greater freedom of use

An example of where Buro Happold’s fire engineering team has accepted the challenge of flexibility and adaptability, and driven the conversations and design whilst maintaining the fire safety, is the new Research Institute building in London. This is the partial redevelopment of an existing hospital to deliver a world-leading medical research facility. The four upper storeys in this building are designed in the most flexible way: stores and higher risk spaces are located in an inner ring around the central core of the building while the outer ring of laboratory and write-up spaces are designed to be able to change purpose between the two uses.

This flexibility is made possible by considering each storey as a separate compartment and assigning a higher risk profile to the entire floorplate. The risk on each floorplate is reduced through the provision of a sprinkler system and an automatic fire detection and alarm system. These provisions are above the minimum recommendations of prescriptive guidance; the building is below 30 metres in height, so guidance does not explicitly recommend the provision of sprinklers on compartment floors. However, the inclusion of sprinklers provides the flexibility desired by the client, as uncompartmented floorplates can be changed over between laboratory and write-up space, as research work changes and new funding becomes available.

Ensuring continuity is key to success

It is no longer acceptable to build with just one use in mind; flexibility and adaptability must be considered early in the design stages on every project. In existing buildings, there are limitations, often in the form of a lack of information on the existing systems and compartmentation within the building. To counteract this, we must improve the information management and ensure the “Golden Thread”, including decision making, is maintained throughout the project. Buro Happold’s service offering ensures this happens on every project, tying this information back to the Building Information Management model. 

By communicating with stakeholders, putting occupant fire safety at the forefront of design, and creating and maintaining a “Golden Thread” of information, Buro Happold’s experts will deliver flexible and adaptable buildings for every client.


fire engineer Jamie Lee McQuillan

Jamie Lee McQuillan

and Joshua Hutchison

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