A team of fire protection engineering researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has been given a $1 million grant from the U.S Department of Homeland Security to investigate the fire safety risks associated with green construction.

Their work, which runs for three years, will aim to quantify the fire hazards and risks associated with green building technologies, materials and sustainable building practices and identify and reduce any potential risks to occupants and firefighters.

Brian Meacham

Brian Meacham

The project is being led by Brian Meacham, associate professor of fire protection engineering. Meacham has already co-authored Fire Safety Challenges of Green Buildings, a report commissioned in 2012 by the Fire Protection Research Foundation which served as the first comprehensive examination of the impact of sustainable construction techniques.

Meacham and his team compiled a list of 78 green building features and construction elements that could have implications for fire safety. They then created a list of the potential hazards associated with these, including greater flammability, faster burn rate, and increased hindrance to firefighters versus conventional construction.

For example, while lightweight engineered lumber (LEL) uses less material, LEL flooring could present risks to firefighters because of a propensity to collapse under fire conditions more quickly than conventional timber construction. Photovoltaic panels generate green electricity, but a rooftop solar array may pose an ignition hazard, can readily burn once ignited, and may continue to produce electricity as long as the sun is out, posing an electrocution hazard.

“There’s no argument that builders need to create a more sustainably built environment,” Meacham said. “However, providing safe environments for building occupants and first responders is equally essential. Our ultimate goal is to effectively achieve both sustainability and fire safety objectives.”

The new funding will enable the initial 2012 investigations to be taken even further.

Domestic fire incident data reporting and fire investigations reports will be reviewed across selected national locations to determine if and how relevant green building data is reported and consider how this data collection may be improved to capture pertinent information on sustainable building elements. This will then be analysed to determine how green building elements perform against conventional construction.

One area of study will be green building envelope systems, including structural insulated panels, exterior wall insulation systems, high-performance window glazing systems, and naturally ventilated facades and atria.

The team will consider factors that could increase hazards to firefighters, in such areas as access time, increased fire size, visibility, and toxicity issues associated with smoke conditions, and structural response to fire.

Fire performance experiments, computer simulation, and firefighter response and tactics assessments will be integral to the collection and analysis process.

Fire performance experiments of realistic interior and exterior fire growth scenarios will be conducted in WPI’s new Fire Protection Engineering Laboratories and at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. WPI’s Engineering Laboratory is large enough for a two-storey mock-up to be constructed and burned. The lab’s three-megawatt calorimeter can collect all the smoke from an intermediate scale burn and provide the heat release rate history.

The results of the project will also include suggestions with regards to how firefighting tactics may be modified for green buildings, the development of education and training material on fire hazards of green buildings, and, if necessary, changes to building codes and standards.