Mitigating fire risk in open-plan spaces

Offering flexibility and freedom, it is unsurprising that the popularity of open-plan buildings has increased. However, these spaces pose numerous challenges for fire protection in building design. David Cerquella, Managing Director at Coopers Fire, explains the growing importance of passive fire specification and which considerations need to be made by architects and building engineers alike.

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Large open spaces provide multiple benefits, including energy savings due to the increased provision of natural light and a more social, collaborative environment for offices, due to the lack of dividing walls. Those in the events industry, for example, may choose open spaces for exhibitions or networking. In offices, meanwhile, a growing preference for flexibility and the ability to rearrange furniture and desks have contributed to more open office environments.

Unfortunately, there are fire risks associated with an open-plan environment due to the absence of physical barriers. This means that, should a fire break out, the spread of smoke and flames is likely to be much more rapid than it would be in a smaller or compartmented area. This risk, of excessive inhalation of gas, smoke or toxic fumes to occupants, could be reduced by containing the spread of fire and protecting evacuation routes with the implementation of fire-resistant barriers into a building’s design.

The issues highlighted with open-plan layouts need to be addressed for a building to adhere to Approved Document B. Active fire protection such as smoke alarms and sprinkler systems should be used in conjunction with passive protection like fire doors and fire curtain systems to ensure compliance to fire regulations and offer maximum levels of safety in the event of a fire.

Fire-resistant barriers and compartmentation

A building must be divided into compartments in order to prevent the spread of fire, which are marked by the implementation of fire-resistant barriers, such as fire doors and curtains. Open-plan spaces pose specific challenges because it is impossible to utilise fire doors, due to the absence of walls. Thankfully, where fire doors cannot be implemented, fire curtains may be installed.

Fire-resistant barriers, such as curtains, are implemented to suppress the growth and development of flames and smoke within a building, protect escape routes and help minimise the risk to human life. Fire curtains can be utilised where the spread of smoke and fire could be more rapid, for example, through a lift shaft.

How a fire curtain works

A fire curtain is a highly robust piece of fire-resistant material which is stored discretely in a steel headbox within the ceiling. In the event of a fire, the curtain is released by a trigger from a fire alarm or local detector, causing it to fall vertically via gravity. Once deployed, it obscures the space, acting as a crucial physical barrier between the fire and the escape routes. Fire curtains can be installed in a number of different locations and can be used to replace a non-load-bearing wall and fire-rated glazing. In open-plan layouts, the installation of a fire curtain enables a building to still meet the relevant regulations.

One of the inherent drawbacks of a fire barrier is the inability to see beyond the barrier to assess the extent of a fire. Approved Document B details that fire doors must have a vision panel; however, where a fire curtain is installed in place of a door, a vision panel could also be extremely beneficial. In an emergency, first responders are required to evacuate individuals from a building, therefore, fire curtains with a vision panel are likely to be a huge aid to first responders. Adding a window-like panel into the curtain means that once a fire curtain has deployed, first responders are able to identify flames and smoke and the associated risks on the other side, which could potentially save precious time in an evacuation.

What to look for: compliance, testing and integrity

A fire-resistant curtain is designed to withstand the heat and effects of the blaze for a specific length of time. This duration is specified to enable enough time for an effective evacuation with the necessary checks of the building, in order to minimise the risk to human life. BS 8524 is the only specific fire curtain standard, and it provides comprehensive guidance to specifiers, manufacturers, installers and facilities managers. The standard outlines all aspects of the fire curtain performance and functionality, as well as requirements for installation and ongoing maintenance of the fire curtain, which must be third-party-approved to illustrate competence and quality.

In terms of resistance testing, BS EN 1634-1 is one of the essential nine annexes that make up BS 8524. When identifying compliance and product fire resistance or integrity (E), BS EN 1634-1 is an important test standard to look for. With the integrity of building components facing increased scrutiny, there is a higher degree of focus on fire resistance and the integrity of every product. With the help of certification, end-users and building occupiers can rest assured that the product has been subject to, and passed, thorough third-party testing against a set of rigorous criteria.

While it is clear that there are benefits of having a vision panel, where they appear in fire curtains, there must be no compromise on compliance, quality and the product’s resistance level. Selecting certified products that have undergone thorough testing, provides the assurance that the fire protection measures in place are of the highest standard required to preserve human life.

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