Prioritizing fire risk in high-rise buildings with combustible cladding systems using NFPA's new tool, EFFECT

Blog Post created by averzoni Employee on Feb 5, 2018

Driven by a desire to have more energy-efficient buildings, it’s an unfortunate truth that many of today’s high-rises in cities around the globe are sheathed in combustible materials. Whether it’s foam insulation board attached to the structure or plastic sandwiched between thin metal cladding panels, a number of components commonly found in modern exterior wall assemblies are combustible and can cause fires to rapidly grow out of control and race from story to story.

To help fight the problem, NFPA has released a new tool—named the Exterior Facade Fire Evaluation Comparison Tool, or EFFECT™—that allows building owners, facility managers, authorities having jurisdiction, and others to determine if one or more buildings they are responsible for are at risk for these types of fires, which have occurred in cities like Dubai, Melbourne, and London. “This is not just in one country,” said Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of applied research at NFPA. “This is a global issue that’s happening.”

With funding from NFPA, global engineering firm Arup developed the technical basis for the tool, which prompts users to input information about not only a building’s exterior wall materials, but also its height and configuration, fire protection equipment like sprinklers, emergency notification system, escape routes, and more to determine its risk level.

It’s this all-factors approach that makes the tool so powerful. “When it comes to big fire events, it’s never just one thing that goes wrong,” Messerschmidt said. “It’s often more than one thing, so you have to address the building more holistically when you want to do a risk assessment. So yes, you’d have to look at the facade and the materials that are used there, but you also have to look at the building itself—is there a sprinkler system available that could suppress any fire that happens inside the building, are there any potential ignition sources close to the building, how fast can people get out of the building, what’s the alarm system, what are the escape routes, etc.”

The facade risk assessment tool is the first of its kind and will provide a much-needed service for those trying to get a handle on this problem, said Messerschmidt. It joins a collection of resources NFPA had already offered on combustible exterior wall assemblies, such as a tool released in August for designers and architects trying to determine whether NFPA 285, Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Non-Load Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components, is a local requirement. This tool, the new one, and more can be found at nfpa.org/exteriorwalls.