Fire safe renovation

The new Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which came into force on July 9, 2012, stipulates that member states must ensure that the energy performance of buildings that are subject to major renovation, or the renovated part of the building, is upgraded to comply with energy performance requirements (1).

National building standards are usually issued for new buildings. The building standards require that the only people occupying the building site during construction are builders, and the developer is responsible for their safety. When renovating residential buildings, as many as 150 people may be present at the construction site at the same time. Who is responsible for the safety of these people?

Due to the increased risks entailed when a large number of people are involved, renovation programmes must be closely monitored to ensure that materials with good fire resistance properties are used to the greatest extent possible, and that no compromises are made on fire safety during renovation work or afterwards.

The choice of construction materials is extremely important for fire safety. Modern materials and construction methods can cause the temperature to rise sharply making the flames spread very rapidly which creates more toxic smoke. The time it takes before a small fire develops into a large fire is nowadays just 3-5 minutes, compared to 15 minutes or more in the 1950s. (2) This represents a direct threat to the ability of residents to evacuate the building safely, and also means much greater problems for fire-fighters when they arrive at the scene of the fire.

CE marking of materials in various building systems (ETA European Technical Approval) allows the use of highly flammable materials in parts of the system (such as ETICS, External Thermal Insulation Composite Systems). The fire testing of insulation materials in these systems is conducted in the final application environment, which in the example of ETICS means that the insulation layer is covered with non-combustible plaster for the fire test. In other words, fire safety for this system is based primarily on a layer of plaster applied at the very end.

During renovation work many protective structural elements are removed to facilitate access during the construction period. The building is also covered with a protective material to protect against the wind and rain during the renovation process. Ducts, cables, connectors and switchgear can also be exposed while working with them. The spaces created by weather protection and installations can create air flows that allows fire and toxic smoke to spread rapidly to other parts of the building. These risks are all too often underestimated, or even ignored, with tragic consequences. The use of materials with good fire resistance properties and well trained installers can help to reduce risks.

The risks of major fires are constantly increasing. Sixty percent of Europe's population will be affected by fire at some point in their lifetime. It is therefore important that fire safety is treated as a high priority, particularly when it concerns large buildings with high occupancy rates where citizens are vulnerable.

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A fire-safe Europe

(1) Directive 2010/31/EU from May 19, 2010
(2) Source – Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency