Tony Jones sets out why using concrete to protect against fire is a responsible design decision.
20 February 2023
It’s thankfully very rare that we see tragic incidents of fire hitting the headlines, and we can only hope that we never again witness something at the same scale of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. That said, the threat of fire in the spaces we live and work remains. So how can we ensure that our buildings are designed to protect against fire and give peace of mind to the people that occupy, own and insure them?
A large part of fire safety measures can come down to the choice of materials used in building design. It may seem obvious, but by using non-combustible materials in construction, the industry can create safer, more resilient and longer life buildings so that if a fire does occur, the damage and spread is limited.
These measures become all the more pertinent in multiple occupancy buildings such as flats, hotels and student accommodation and those with vulnerable occupants including schools, hospitals and care homes.
With high levels of scrutiny being placed on building facades, the MPA wanted to demonstrate the performance, robustness and peace of mind which can be delivered by non-combustible concrete cladding systems.
A test designed to reassure
Concrete is an inherently non-combustible material, meaning it doesn’t burn or contribute to fire – nor does it give off toxic fumes or smoke. With the highest fire safety rating of class A1, it doesn’t need to be tested to ensure its non-combustibility.
That said, to show just how resilient this material can be, the UK concrete industry carried out a fire test of precast concrete cladding panels to give people the confidence that concrete facades won’t contribute to the spread of fire across buildings.
The MPA commissioned the Fire Protection Association (FPA), the UK's leading fire safety organisation to carry out the test. The test was specifically designed to represent what would happen if a fire were to break out of a window or other major opening within a concrete facade.
During the test period, in which a timber crib within the concrete panels was set alight, temperatures in excess of 600ºC were recorded on the external face of the cladding 2.5m above the opening. Despite the ferocity of this fire, temperatures on the internal face barely rose above an ambient level and remained cool enough to touch, showing how effectively concrete can act as a heat shield between the fire and anything behind it.
Once the fire was extinguished, the panels exhibited minor cosmetic damage, but were otherwise structurally sound. If the panels were in use in a building, the work needed to get the building in working order again would be minimal.
Peace of Mind in a Fire
Concrete is the low risk solution
Considering the ferocity and temperature of the fire, the fact that the damage sustained to the panels was only cosmetic and could be quickly repaired, is testament to their fire resistance performance.
Building with non-combustible materials means building resilience into the spaces we occupy. While the best protection is always prevention, if a fire does break out, concrete is a reliable material and a low-risk solution that can save lives and property.
We hope that this fire test can help to give peace of mind to insurers, owners and occupiers of buildings that those built with concrete offer a long term resilience and protection against the threat of fire.