Blending fire safety with aesthetics

Steve Bond, customer support manager, fire products, at Pilkington United Kingdom Limited, explores how developments in glazing are enabling businesses to meet fire safety regulations without compromising on design or energy performance.

Arguably the first consideration for architects, before aesthetics or even functionality, is to provide a safe environment for a building’s occupants and its contents.

When it comes to protecting a property against fire, design plays a crucial role, ensuring that a blaze is not able to spread but is instead contained in a single area, limiting damage while allowing safe egress for occupants and entry for emergency services personnel. Achieving this means placing fire-resistant physical barriers throughout a building, and especially around exit and entry routes.

This can create a challenge for the architect as solid physical barriers can conflict with contemporary building design, which often favours light, airy spaces characterised by clear lines of sight to give a sense of openness.

Glass is the obvious material to achieve these aesthetic aims because it offers a barrier to the elements while still allowing light to flood into interior spaces and uninterrupted views to be had both outwards and inwards.

Unlike products of the past, today’s fire-resistant glazing is completely transparent with attractive aesthetic qualities. Modern fire-resistant glass can also have added performance properties such as thermal efficiency, acoustic insulation and solar control. This has led to a rise in demand for fire-resistant products among architects looking to achieve their aesthetic goals without compromising on design.

Understanding legislation

Building regulations give guidance on the levels of fire resistance needed in certain applications, but, it is vital that the appropriate level of protection is provided in accordance with the detailed fire strategy of the respective building.

The strategy is devised by the designated ‘responsible person’ and will consider factors such as ensuring there is a clear exit route for people in the event of a fire, as well as more obvious matters such as providing separation between different areas within a property to contain the spread of a fire.

The ‘responsible person’ assumes liability (Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005), and while they may not be a fire safety expert, they will take responsibility for consulting with relevant professionals to ensure that a robust and reliable strategy is in place for every eventuality.

Developments in fire-resistant glazing

In the event of a fire, modern glazing systems can play a fundamental role in the protection of people and property.

Innovation and investment across the glazing industry has seen an increase in the use of intumescent interlayers, which provide increased integrity and insulation. When heated, the intumescent layer turns opaque and expands to form a barrier to hot gases and flames, as well as insulating from the heat of the fire. If installed as curtain walling, internal doors or fire screens, it is possible for fire-resistant glass to provide complete protection against heat transfer for up to three hours, depending on the specification of the fire-resistant product.

Even floor-to-ceiling glass screens can provide this kind of protection, meaning they effectively serve the same purpose as a brick wall, so there is no longer any need to visually screen off areas to protect them in case of fire.

More basic systems offer less protection, but are able to maintain their transparency when exposed to fire, which helps people trying to escape. It can also help the emergency services see through doors and internal divisions without having to expose themselves to potential danger.
No need to compromise

Placing the focus on safety doesn’t mean designers have to cut corners when it comes to aesthetics or energy efficiency. Historically, wired glass was predominantly used as fire-resistant glazing due to its ability to meet fire safety requirements. Although the glass still represents good value, it can limit the scope for designers and architects. Modern fire-resistant glass is incredibly versatile, however, and has removed the need for design compromise.

It’s not just aesthetics that fire-resistant glazing is having an impact on. The option to add combinations of the latest low-emissivity and solar control coatings with  the fire-resistant glass means designers are able to produce fire-safe buildings, while delivering excellent energy performance.

Low-emissivity glass helps reduces the amount of heat lost through windows and can also allow more heat energy from the sun in through the glass. This so-called passive solar gain provides additional energy free of charge. Solar control coatings, minimise solar heat gain and helps to control glare, decreasing the need for air conditioning and ultimately reducing the running cost of a building.

An ideal combination

An ongoing commitment to research and development has seen significant developments in fire-resistant glass. The innovation in the glass industry means we are all able to benefit

from lighter, brighter, more energy efficient spaces, while also benefitting from the confidence that, should a fire break out, safety is uncompromised.