Fire protection considerations when renovating

Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, fire safety is firmly at the top of every designer’s list of considerations. This journal entry:

  • reviews fire risks in the contemporary home, and
  • outlines practical options to incorporate when renovating to limit the spread of fire and/ or allow maximum time for occupants to escape, should it break out.

Open-plan living is one of the defining design trends of recent decades. Removing walls generates a sense of space, light and fluidity of living but makes the home much more vulnerable to the easy and quick spread of fire. The absence of walls or doors allows fire to spread quickly in all directions and provides large volumes of oxygen as fuel. These risks can be mitigated by the introduction of ‘fire’ doors (where this fits with the design) or misting / sprinkler systems – see below.

Materials used in both the construction and furnishing of modern homes has moved from largely natural (timber, wool, cotton) to inexpensive, synthetic products. These tend to be more flammable, catch fire more easily, burn more quickly and produce toxic gases when burnt to a larger extent than their more natural predecessors. This is particularly true of:

  • plywood, particleboard and MDF – used extensively in the construction of doors, roofing and flooring. The wooden particles mixed with formaldehyde-based resins and wax make these products very quick to catch fire and, as they are used in structural elements of construction, their rapid deterioration quickly makes structures unstable.
  • polyurethane foam, used in the past and still found extensively in furniture and soft furnishings

Thermal energy-efficient windows, introduced after the energy crisis in the 70’s to control heating costs in homes, have seen widespread use in modern residential construction. These were typically constructed of vinyl which melts quickly upon reaching a certain temperature, resulting in air rushing in to the affected area and producing very high temperature flames.  (Timber, while still flammable, tends to burn more slowly and deteriorate gradually.)

Carefully choosing construction and furnishing materials to ensure low flammability and minimum release of toxic fumes when burnt can mitigate the effects of these risks.

Key features to incorporate to control the spread of fire / ensure safe escape:

  1. Install fire / heat / smoke alarms – devices that incorporate a means of detecting fire, heat and/or smoke and provide a (usually audible) warning. These are usually fitted to the ceiling, and are designed to detect fire in the early stages and give occupants sufficient warning to find a safe exit and leave the building. Further details are set out in the Building Regs Approved Document B.
  2. Ideally, compartmentalise – divide areas with walls and doors made of good quality materials, certified as fire resistant for a specified period of time – the Building Regulations Approved Document B sets out requirements for various areas / situations in the home.
  3. If compartmentalisation is not practical or undesirable, the Building Regs Approved Document B will require the use of:
    1. Domestic Fire Sprinkler Systems – usually fairly unobtrusive and installed to cover escape routes through your home. Typically, sprinkler heads are recessed into the ceiling and activated by smoke/heat. If properly installed and maintained, these are very effective at controlling the spread of / helping to extinguish fire. However, downsides are the relatively high level of disruption needed to install the necessary pipework and the destructive effect of water sprayed into the property when activated. 
    2. Misting systems – a variation on the sprinkler system – can be a replacement for a conventional water sprinkler system, activated by a heat detector. They are designed to slow the spread of fire to allow safe escape of occupants rather than extinguishing fires as such. This means that they are normally far less intrusive (and much cheaper) to install and less destructive when activated than sprinklers – water is released in a ‘mist’, so a far smaller volume of water is released causing less damage and easier clean-up.

We have successfully recently installed a Plumis system in a three-storey home where open-planning living was a key requirement of the renovation and redesign. We worked closely with the appointed Building Inspector, the contractor and the specialist supplier to design the system to be as discreet as possible while complying with the relevant regulations.  We ensured it was fitted at the appropriate stage in the renovation process to maximise time and cost efficiency. YouTube clip of Plumis system in operation here:

If you’d like help renovating/redesigning and ensuring fire safety is maximised, please get in touch.