FPE eXTRA Issue 56, August 2020

Digitalization: Co-creating a Fire Safety World

By: Michael Strömgren

The impact and strength of digitalization has never been clearer than during the ongoing COVID -19 crisis. Digitalization has enabled us to work from just about anywhere and maintain social, albeit not physical, contact with colleagues and clients. The surge of virtual meetings, remote inspections, and webinars are just some examples of how we can quickly adapt and utilize digitalization. And for the AEC industry, this digitalization was desperately needed for years.

Most of us are aware of how new technology and processes have started to change the construction industry, but within fire protection engineering this change has been a bit hesitant. This is changing now at increasing speed. First, a throwback to the Quarter 3, 2003 issue of Fire Protection Engineering magazine when Michael Spearpoint in a clever way pointed out:

“At this stage, it is important that the fire protection engineering community be aware of the developments in building product models to avoid being left behind.“

Other disciplines have reached further. Standards development like open BIM and industry practice haves to a large degree missed out on fire safety aspects. It is important for us within the fire protection engineering profession to get on board and utilize the latest technology. This includes looking at a bigger perspective than just Building Information Modelling, BIM.

Figure 1 Digitalization enables us to co-create fire safe buildings more efficiently

First, this change is coming whether we want it or not. Oxford Professor Bengt Flyvberg, expressed that the AEC industry is due its Uber moment. Change will come from within the industry, or from the outside. So where is this going? Let’s start with a European perspective.

Nowhere has the need for sound information infrastructure been clearer than in the UK. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, it has been clear that we lack feedback structure and audit trails to ensure assurance and compliance. From a systems perspective, we are lagging years after other industries. Similar façade risk constructions like Grenfell Tower exists also in other buildings. In contrast to industries like the car industry, where you would see immediate recalls, there is no mechanism to quickly identify other building risks. Through tedious manual inspections and façade material specimens were sent for testing, roughly 500 buildings were identified to be at risk in the UK.

The lack of information infrastructure was one of the key areas that were identified in the Hackitt report where the UK regulatory system was reviewed. There is a need to ensure a golden thread of information for fire safety in buildings. We need it for accountability, transparency and to be able to communicate fire safety to all relevant stakeholders. This is the key for us from an engineering perspective. Digitalization enables us to communicate fire safety more efficiently and become better engineers.

In Scandinavia we are seeing an increase in how fire safety is adopted in construction projects. BIM leads to improved project productivity and it gives fire protection engineers increased responsibilities that are more integrated with the design team. Benefits are clear from both a business and quality perspective. Our goal is to ensure the buildings are safe for the end clients, and the users in the building. Making fire safety digital in the design process gives ground for efficient data keeping all the way to the tenants in the building.

What we are lacking today are standards and common processes that we may reuse. Different project organization has different ways which affects efficiency. But gradually we see a shift. An important lesson is that we see the same information regardless of our use of prescriptive (code compliant) solutions or when applying performance-based or engineering approaches. Since we end up with a final design and resulting specifications, we need a chain of information that is intact and refined when going into construction and operation of the building (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Maintaining an unbroken chain of information for fire safety is important to make sure that objectives are met

A model is being developed in the R&D-project “the Unbroken Chain of Information for Fire Safety”. The project runs from September 2019 to the spring of 2021 and is part of the strategic innovation program Smart Built Environment, funded by Vinnova (Sweden’s Innovation Agency), the Swedish Energy Agency and Formas (Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development). Half of the project budget is based on contributions from the participants Briab and Peab, where experts in building, fire protection and digitalization are included in the working group.

In this project we will use our digital tools for fire protection and show that it is possible to maintain an unbroken information flow. We will work on actual ongoing building projects, and test solutions to manage fire protection information, e.g. in a BIM environment. We will use the evaluations to increase our experience base and propose how these digital tools can be developed further. We will also look at how the building industry can collaborate better together. Digitalization also means greater global exchange, which is why the project will look at international standards such as European standardization (CEN) and openBIM standardization (buildingSMART). Standardization within digital fire safety got a jump start in 2020 with several new initiatives.

For the fire protection engineer, we can expect big changes in the coming decade. Digitalization will affect our business models and will empower us with strong tools. These tools can make it easier for us to reach out to stakeholders, and to co-create safe buildings with them. By being more efficient we also get more time to be engineers rather than being stuck in routine and the daily project administration. In the end, digitalization is empowering us to co-create a fire safe environment and to spend more time on the things that really matters.

Michael Strömgren is with Briab.