While the market is becoming increasingly aware of the ventilation and indoor air quality benefits conferred by the incorporation of automated windows into smart building systems, the potential for such measures to also enhance fire safety remains largely overlooked.

According to Shane Grice of Unique Window Services, improved ventilation can dramatically enhance fire safety, given that smoke poses one of the most serious threats to human occupants in the midst of a blaze.

“When fires occur, people will normally succumb to the smoke quicker than the fire itself; because the smoke fills the room more rapidly they will pass out and can’t escape the premises,” said Grice.

The threat to human safety posed by the smoke created during blazes has already prompted regulators in Europe to introduce statutory measures for enhanced ventilation in built environments.

“Because they’ve had so many deaths due to smoke inhalation as opposed to people burning to death in fires, they came up with the idea in Europe that all new buildings must have windows that allow smoke to escape,” Grice said. “It’s now mandatory in the European sector to have ventilation on all public buildings and multi-residential complexes.”

The use of automated elevated windows is one of the best means of enhancing ventilation for smoke dispersal purposes, given the natural behaviour of gases when heated in tandem with the ability of such smart systems to operate independently.

“As everyone knows, hot air rises and smoke is basically hot air that we can see, so as that smoke rises up it needs to escape somewhere,” Grice said. “If you have naturally vented windows with automatic winders that you can press a button to open and close, they can be connected to a smoke ventilation system so when the smoke detector picks up smoke, the alarm goes off and the windows will open to allow the smoke to escape.

“This gives people in the building more time to evacuate and make their way to safety than they would otherwise have in a smoke-filled environment.”

According to Grice, the use of automated windows to help disperse smoke possesses significant advantages compared to traditional emergency ventilation systems – chief amongst them economy and reliability.

“Mechanically ventilated systems will require large fans to draw and expel the smoke out of the building – this means they also require an uninterrupted power supply,” he said.

“With a natural ventilation system, once the windows are open that’s it – there’ s no more power required. Smoke ventilation systems can also have battery back-ups, so that if in some instances the power shuts down, the windows will still open up, after which point they don’t need to do anything else.”

While Australia remains well behind Europe in the usage of such systems, Grice points out that the local market is becoming more receptive to them, with fire engineers particularly enthusiastic about their potential.

“Even though it’s not as widely known or used as other methods, natural ventilation is slowly taking off here in Australia,” he said. “The fire engineers are really picking it up – once they hear about it they’re always doing projects that require that sort of thing.”

The method is particularly effective for the retrofitting of older buildings that need to be upgraded in order to meet more exacting modern fire requirements.

“It’s very good for retrofitting older buildings – oftentimes it’s a lot more economical to put a naturally ventilated system into an existing building that needs to meet smoke ventilation codes,” said Grice. “We did an old government building here in Brisbane that didn’t meet the smoke ventilation codes or fire codes, for which the contractor was looking at cutting out windows and putting in vented louvers and other measures.

“When they contacted us, we came along and just retrofitted an electric chain winder and power cables onto window situated on either side of the building, so as to create cross-flow ventilation.

“Once a fire is detected, the windows open up on either side of the building and blow the smoke, enabling the premises to meet the building code.”