Why is it that structural fire engineering is rarely used in major building design projects in the U.S.?
That question was addressed last week in Alexandria, Virginia at a workshop co-sponsored by the American Institute of Steel Construction and the Applied Technology Research Council. The fire engineering design of hi-rise buildings and other unique structures around the world are routinely based on engineering principles. Structural members, connections and systems are designed to withstand fires appropriate to the occupancy, loads and protection provided. Global fire engineering firms integrate this dimension of fire engineering (which is in many respects better researched and understood than other aspects of the complex fire problem) in their overall approach to fire safety design. At the workshop, several UK-based fire engineering firms and a few American ones gave examples of such projects, illustrating where the application of typical standard fire resistance ratings are clearly not appropriate and in some cases are less than conservative.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation has contributed to the development of sound fire engineering methods, most recently with a study focused on the contribution of exposed structural timber to compartment fire growth.
So what’s holding us back? The workshop identified a number of possible barriers including a lack of widespread structural fire engineering curriculum elements in academia, a lack of widespread awareness about the engineered approach that ensures safer buildings, and a lack of a financial incentive to move away from a prescriptive approach.
In the end, the 40 people in room agreed that in light of recent major fire events around the world, the need to ensure that our hi-rise buildings are safe has never been clearer.