Green Building Design and Fire Safety

  January 12, 2011

Green building performance can butt heads with fire systems code compliance, in sometimes surprising ways. Here are some of the challenges to navigate at the intersection of green building design and fire safety:

PV Panels: Even after the electrical mains are disconnected, a standard procedure to protect the safety of firefighters during a fire, photovoltaic arrays stay energized. Even if the solution were as simple as turning off the switch to the devices that deliver green power, locating and activating the switches can be problematic as they can be on the roof. Also, an array can remain powered between devices.

Atriums: Unique configurations require more detailed smoke analysis. Different glazing can conflict with fire-rated construction. Large sunshades or similar devices may result in difficulty with sprinkler and fire alarm device placement or operation.

Wind Turbines: In addition to potentially always being powered, new wind turbine designs which are integrated into high-rise office structures, located half way up, introduce ignition sources - lube, oil - that would not normally be there. Also turbines have a long wind-down period.

New Materials: New composite materials are an unknown when it comes to fire ratings. The use of reclaimed and recycled materials presents another challenge, since it can be difficult to obtain traditional materials fire-testing properties (for flame spread, smoke development, etc.) from those materials. That can make it hard to perform materials-hazard assessments within the context of the codes.

Vegetated Roofs: Improperly maintained vegetated roofs could become a building-to-building fire-spread hazard.

Experts are careful to caution though that green building designs do not equate increased fire- and life-safety hazards. Rather, owners of green buildings might have to be aware that the green designs can present previously unconsidered challenges that arise as a direct result of construction choices and should use performance-based design to meet the safety levels needed.


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