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#101Wednesdays: The concerns over a series of proposed high-rises and single-exit stairs

Blog Post created by gharrington Employee on Feb 14, 2018

Spire London – Image via Greenland Group

When I look at my new copy of the 2018 edition of the Life Safety Code, there's a sense of accomplishment for the fire protection and life safety community in advancing the safety of building occupants from the effects of fire. Indeed, fire deaths are unusual in buildings in which the code’s requirements are met, and when they do occur, NFPA’s technical committees are quick to revisit those requirements and modify them as necessary. We’ve come a long way from the days of the fires that precipitated the development of what was then known as the Building Exits Code. For example, a fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago killed more than 600 people in 1903, and another at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City killed 146 workers in 1911. We’ve learned from these fires and applied those lessons to our ever-evolving codes so those deaths were not in vain. 

The provision of multiple exit stairs has been a fundamental requirement for apartment buildings since the 1956 edition of NFPA 101. How is it, then, that in 2018 I’m reading in the Times of London about the development of not one but seven high-rise, residential towers that will each contain only a single-exit stair serving the highest floors? It’s mind-boggling to me with what we know about life safety from fire that anyone would consider designing—and any building code would allow—a high-rise building with a single exit.

The proposed Spire London will have a single stair serving the apartments on floors 55 through 67 (presumably equivalent to floors 56 through 68 in the U.S., since the first level above the ground floor is typically designated as the first floor in Europe). This was likely a design decision to allow for larger luxury apartments on the upper floors, since increased living space equals increased price. This is about money.

While the building will be equipped with automatic sprinklers and smoke extraction systems, these are active systems. Any active system (or passive life safety feature for that matter) has the potential to fail. It is this potential that makes redundancy critically important when it comes to means of egress. Anyone with any fire service experience knows that if something can go wrong, there’s a good chance it will. The risk of system failures can be minimized by performing the needed routine testing and maintenance, but it can never be eliminated entirely. Putting residents 770 feet above ground level with only a single-exit stair for the sole purpose of profit creates a completely unnecessary risk.

Compounding the Spire London exiting issue, travel distance from the furthest apartment entrance to the single stair will reportedly be about 70 feet, while the usual “government guidelines” call for a distance of no more than about 25 feet. This increased distance is based on “fire engineering solutions,” which is fine as long as all the systems on which the engineering solutions are based function as intended and the real fire does just what the design fire did. How can all this be assured? There’s not much of a safety factor when there’s only one way out, especially when there’s 70 feet of corridor between you and one exit. By comparison, the Life Safety Code would require at least two exits, and the maximum permitted common path of travel (the distance between an apartment door and the point at which an occupant would have a choice of going in two directions to reach separate exits) would be 50 feet.

What makes this story all the more unbelievable is it comes just seven months after the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in London, in which 71 people died. While the combustible exterior cladding and lack of automatic sprinklers and functioning fire alarms significantly contributed to the large loss of life in that fire, so too did the building’s single-exit stair. The proposed construction of these single-exit residential towers, nearly three times the height of Grenfell, is a slap in the face to those victims.

Grenfell Tower – Image via telegraph.co.uk

Let me put it in terms that the developers of these buildings can understand. You don’t put all your investments in only stocks, bonds, or real estate. You diversify your holdings. Why? Because each market has vulnerabilities, and you protect your assets by spreading your investment portfolio across multiple markets. To put it simply, you don’t put all your eggs in one basket because if you drop the basket, you can say goodbye to all your eggs.

In this case we’re not talking about investments. We’re talking about diversifying life safety features and providing redundancy so that when the bubble bursts (a system doesn’t work the way it was supposed to or the fire does something unanticipated), you don’t lose all your assets (the lives of the residents who have no idea what risk they’re being exposed to because they will assume the building is safe). Maybe residents of Spire London and the other single-exit high rises will be safe if everything works the way it’s supposed to. But what about if and when it doesn’t? How many lives might be placed at risk for the sake of an additional few hundred square feet of living area?

Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

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