Whilst working as an architect in London in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I encountered what has become my template for inflexible regulations that stifle innovation. An encounter with the British Standard Fire Test is now my metaphor for the architect’s equivalent of a Catch-22 situation – thank you Joseph Heller!
The background to this story begins with the Kings Cross St. Pancras tube station fire of 1987 that killed 33 people and prompted a major review of fire safety codes in the UK. By 1989 when I was working on this particular project all new building design teams included a fire consultant with significant powers of veto. My encounter with ‘our’ fire consultant introduced me to the British Standard Fire Test in all of its magnificent effectiveness as a measure to improve the fire safety of buildings. The project architect had tasked me with the job of exploring design options for a five storey atrium in a mixed-use retail/office building. The project was a redevelopment of a building in Regent Street, London. The existing heritage façade was to be retained whilst new structure and programme was introduced to the gutted interior. Rising above the original three storey envelope was a new five storey office tower. Within this tower, for the full five storeys, was an atrium to help introduce natural light and visual relief into the core of the building. Atria in high rise buildings are a significant fire hazard since they can act as a chimney helping the fire to breathe and spread more rapidly. The project architect instructed me to explore a timber lined atrium featuring Scandinavian species. Given that timber is combustible, I included a wall-washing sprinkler system in my design sketches. These systems are automatically triggered by heat sensors so that they douse the fire before it gets out of control.
This is a sketch showing the atrium concept – back in the days of hand-drawn architecture!
This cutaway detail shows early thinking about the way the timber elements are integrated.
A couple of concept sketches for alternative floor treatments – abstractions of sunny landscapes – perhaps indicating some antipodean homesickness?
The atrium design concepts were developed using hand drawn sketches because at that time computers for design were rare in architect’s offices. I love hand drawing, it allows me to think and feel as I work. Architectural drawing is a technical skill that requires some artistic flair. Back in the day the whole project was being drawn by hand on tracing paper.
The conceptual design process for the atrium took a couple of weeks to get to a resolution that the project architect was happy sign-off. With architectural sign-off the drawings were circulated to the other consultants for their review and input.
We needed the air-conditioning consultants to advise us on the integration with the air-handling system. We needed the structural engineer to look at the sizes and connections so that the design could be refined for elegance and efficiency – we wanted the timber detailing to have that Scandinavian bent-wood aesthetic that the Danes and Fins in particular do so well. We needed the electrical engineer to look at lighting systems we could tastefully integrate. We needed to work out cleaning and maintenance strategies. What I didn’t see coming was the British Standard Fire Test!
Of all the consultants on the team, the fire engineer was the least of my concerns because of the wall-washing sprinkler system I had incorporated. I thought this would effectively negate the risk of a fire in the atrium, which it did, but the design failed the BSFT and would not be approved with timber!
The British Standard Fire Test requires that an element withstand a given fire intensity for a given period of time without catching fire. I cannot now recall the actual values but it was something like a flame source of at least 900 degrees for at least 30 minutes. The actual values are not significant, because my timber atrium lining concept with its wall-washing sprinkler system would never pass this test. Why? Because the sprinklers put the fire out! If the fire goes out before the BSFT time frame, the test fails! We couldn’t have our timber atrium because it would not burn in the mandatory test.
The timber lined atrium design was vetoed by the fire consultant. My design evolved into an all metal version and my visa expired meaning I had to return to Australia before the project went into construction.
Designing a building that does not put lives at risk is something I take very seriously. When we try to achieve that with regulations based on a ‘tick-box’ assessment alone we stifle innovation. The first principles of the fire codes are all about improving safety and reducing fire risks. The mechanism for testing compliance, in that case, at that time, was fundamentally flawed in that the test alone did not allow for the first principle to be achieved by alternative means.
I brought the memory of the BSFT back to Australia with me and have encountered variations on the same theme several times since. Most recently the BSFT principle killed an innovative design for building a house in a flood plain – that story is next.