Building safer buildings with faster, practical completion
Fire safety management is all too often neglected at the earliest planning stages of construction projects. There is often a lack of specific smoke ventilation expertise among building designers of refurbishments and big builds, often meaning smoke ventilation is poorly designed or omitted altogether. This could be because it is only required in buildings of a particular size or for a particular use.
Sometimes these requirements are only considered after planning, when building regulations are consulted. By this point it can be difficult to integrate the most effective solution. This results in compromise and more expensive solutions. But is the word ‘compromise’ a description you ever want to hear about fire safety?
Without specific smoke ventilation expertise, the responsibility usually gets passed on to fire engineers, who then have very little latitude to create a compliant building. When smoke vent specialists are only brought in late in design, or once the building is under construction, it can end in more expensive and convoluted bespoke smoke vent design and manufacture.
As a rule, the more complex the building, the more in-depth the knowledge of regulations and British standards you need. For example, combinations of shops, offices and living accommodation require a solution that addresses all the risks of high fuel loads, large open spaces and 24-hour occupancy. Many older buildings also have severe restrictions on space for modern smoke control and their existing systems are likely to be non-compliant. In such situations, roofs, walls and floors often need to be altered and new fire-proof compartmentation installing.
Yet despite the inherent complications and specialist knowledge required in these more challenging buildings, an all-party meeting – on site and ahead of design – is rare. Perhaps it’s due to the time pressures of modern build programmes, or perhaps it’s down to assumptions being made. When fire safety management is included from the start, time, money and more importantly lives are likely to be saved should fire break out.
Things you need not to assume
Receiving certification is surely the most fundamental of requirements, especially for a lifesaving device. However, there’s rarely a request for documentation or proof of certification which is a serious concern. nSHEV smoke vents are covered by a harmonised European Standard (hEN) and must be certified to BS EN12101-2.
Sometimes it can be the simple things that are the most problematic, and these often arise from a lack of smoke ventilation product knowledge. Examples include: when the angle of opening for smoke vents clashes with other structures; thinking that any control can interface with other building systems, such as BMS and door entry controls; and, most dangerous of all, that all equipment provided under the title of ‘smoke vent’ will be compliant.
The smoke vent package is all too often split into smaller parts and divided between the façade installation and M&E packages. Or it’s included within the electrical package. In the first situation – without extremely close coordination – the outcome can include ventilation and control compatibility issues, resulting in a non-compliant design. Handing over smoke ventilation to electrical subcontractors should only happen if they are smoke vent specialists. If they’re not, they’ll often have little or no knowledge of the basic requirements of smoke control. That can lead to frantic last-minute rectification and alteration to gain practical completion (PC) of the building. PC is an important date in the schedule and, while different schemes have different interpretations for PC, a working and commissioned smoke control system is non-negotiable.
Where a fire-engineered solution has been commissioned, smoke control, fire strategy documents and drawings tend to be accurate and clear. Without these, smoke control seems to take second place to other design requirements. A lack of joined-up thinking ensues, with inaccuracies around structural apertures, misaligned ducts and more. The inevitable result is reworking and alteration on-site. It’s a needless expense and additional time pressure.
Planning for a better, safer building
With so many differently designed buildings, the reality is that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ template. The same is true for smoke control design. Building regulations may be open to interpretation and this can skew priorities. But assemble a team of specialists with mutual respect and bring them together before planning begins and you can easily side step the pitfalls.
You will also find additional benefits. A carefully designed NSHEV system, for instance, can add comfort cooling and daylight ingress. That means you’ll find it easier to comply with Approved Documents B and F with very little additional equipment and installation cost.
If a solution is designed at an early stage, adopted by the design team and detailed into all drawing issues, showing size, location, power requirements and interfaces, you stand to save hundreds of hours, thousands of pounds, and end up with a better designed, safer building.
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