can safety regulations keep up with innovation in construction?

A devastating fire that engulfed two large apartment buildings in Valencia, Spain, on 23 February killed ten people and destroyed dozens of homes. Video footage shows flames spreading swiftly up the buildings’ exterior, fanned by strong winds to create what onlookers described as a “fireball”. The two blocks – 14-storey buildings containing 138 apartments – were gutted in under an hour, raising questions as to the materials used in their construction.

Parallels have been drawn between this fire in Valencia’s western neighbourhood of Campanar and the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, which spread in a similar way across the building’s exterior, resulting in the tragic loss of 72 lives. The Grenfell fire was spread by the building’s flammable cladding, which had been approved by fire safety inspectors only two years before the fire. Grenfell profoundly affected British society, leading to significant regulatory changes aimed at preventing similar tragedies.

In the wake of the Valencia tragedy, the public is urgently seeking clear answers, not just about this particular fire but about the overall safety of homes.

The challenges of keeping fire safety up to date

Older Spanish homes are notoriously cold in winter: 51% of all Spanish houses were built at a time when there was no legal requirement for homes to have any kind of insulation. As building techniques modernised, insulation became the norm, and cavity insulation, covered by cladding panels, replaced traditional bricks and mortar.

The building that caught fire in Valencia was modern. It was completed in 2008, and was advertised as being made with “innovative materials”, including cladding made from an aluminium-synthetic composite and cavity insulation.

While it would be unjust to claim that Spanish fire safety regulations are totally lacking, there is always scope for improvement. In the coming weeks and months, experts will conduct thorough investigations into all aspects of the buildings, including materials, external factors such as wind, evacuation routes and alarm systems, as well as the origin of the fire itself. As a result, regulations will be updated. However, these processes must be agile, effective and proactive if further tragedies are to be prevented.

Technology is developing faster than ever before, and keeping pace with this change is a huge problem for fire safety. If current regulations cannot keep up with new developments, new systems need to be put in place as a matter of urgency.

Wooden buildings

They have been around for centuries, but in recent decades, new construction techniques have made it possible to construct much larger wooden buildings than before. There are numerous studies on the way fire behaves on tall concrete and steel buildings, as well as many tragic real life fires that have prompted changes in legislation. There are, however, much fewer studies on large wooden structures.

This calls into question the fire safety of tall wooden buildings compared to concrete and steel ones. Doubts about wood’s safety in large scale construction raise the question of whether people should be planning to build skyscapers out of it in the near future.

Hydrogen fuel cells in buildings

One novel way to reduce emissions is the installation of photovoltaic energy systems that, in turn, allow for the production and accumulation of hydrogen for use in the building itself, disconnecting the building from the grid.

However, a holistic H2 system can also be a source of fires. Systems like this are not, at least in Spain, currently covered by rules and regulations in residential buildings.

This is a significant example of legislation not keeping pace with technology – hydrogen cells are not illegal, but there are few rules covering their use in certain contexts. The question for developments such as this is: do we temporarily stop promoting these solutions, or stop researching them altogether?

Electric vehicles

While the shift towards electric electric vehicles (EVs) brings benefits, they present a unique challenge for underground parking facilities. The smoke evacuation and fire suppression systems in older car parks are tailored to combustion engines, and do not take into account the distinct fire behaviour of EVs.

The widespread adoption of EVs has prompted a reconsideration of existing infrastructure to ensure safety and compatibility, raising questions for fire safety experts, such as whether electric vehicles should be banned from buildings, or whether they should even be sold until regulations can catch up.

This also includes electric scooters and bicycles, which are usually charged in users’ homes, similar to much smaller devices like mobile phones and laptops. There have already been cases where these devices have caught fire, some of them very recent.

These vehicles are fast becoming ubiquitous, but their large batteries present a substantial fire risk, and there is little to no guidance on charging or storing them in residential areas.

Leer más: Electric vehicles and the challenge of fire risks in car parks

The increasing pace of change

Many of us adopt the latest technology in without a second thought, trusting that it has been tested and is safe to use in our homes. Historically, however, the techniques used to build our homes have evolved gradually, giving ample time for architects, engineers, builders, and regulatory bodies to establish and implement an effective framework.

The swift pace of technological progress calls for innovative approaches to risk assessment. Some elements have seemingly little to do with technology: as apartment buildings grow taller, for example, a deeper understanding of how variables like wind influence the way fires spread is essential, and requires more sophisticated simulations and extensive testing.

Ultimately, these rapid advances will render traditional practices outdated. The tragedy that occurred in Valencia serves as a potent reminder of the urgent need for adaptation in our assessment of risk.

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente en The Conversation, un sitio de noticias sin fines de lucro dedicado a compartir ideas de expertos académicos.

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