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No more Grenfell? VK screens existing buildings

The shock wave after the fire in the Grenfell-tower obviously resonated strongly in the design and construction sector. Architects, engineers, façade designers and builders and production companies are anxiously wondering if this could also happen in Belgium? Obviously, a fire can never be ruled out. But an integrated engineering approach, with façade and fire safety experts supporting the architect, the proprietor, façade builder and real estate developer, already excludes a number of risks.

First large reference case for Belgium

Presently, VK Architects & Engineers is developing a reference case for a large proprietor who manages several thousands of housing units. The client wishes for an expert to produce additional research with regard to the fire-resistance of facades. VK calls on its two expert engineering services, Façade Engineering and Fire Safety Engineering, who have all simulation tools at their disposal, who are informed on the most recent norms and standards, and moreover who perform an internal mutual test. Façade solutions are to meet a fire safety framework, fire safety norms have to be checked against the feasibility on the façade level.

VK is also a member of the UK working group “Call for Experts: Call for Evidence – Building Regulations and Fire Safety”. Following the Grenfell-fire, this organisation is developing new guidelines to adapt the UK regulations with regard to fire safety of facades. Furthermore, we collaborate with academic partners, such as Exova, BBRI (Belgian Building Research Institute) and the Fire Testing Laboratory at the Liege University, to ensure scientifically supported solutions. Finally, as a member of the sub-working group Facades of the Belgian Ministry of Interior Affairs, VK also has a line with the executive branch of government.

How does VK design fire-resistant facades?

VK performs destructive and non-destructive research in mid-rise and high-rise conditions. This includes the partial dismantling of facades, without risking the structural integrity and windproofness and waterproofness. By means of a visual inspection, the physical condition of the facade is analysed, materials and facade composition is identified and the risks of fire spread through and in the facade detected. Thermographic and endoscopic research can also be applied to examine the composition of the cavity wall and façade and to formulate the appropriate advice. “We have learned from experience that removing the cladding (finishing panel for ventilated facades) usually suffices to gather information regarding the existing situation and the connections, in order to design a fire-resistant solution for the building facades. Exceptionally, additional tests are required to determine the heat delivery, flame spread, the delivery of toxins and smoke development. These tests may be necessary, when no technical specifications of a façade component are available, or when the applied material is not identifiable”, according to Maaike Berckmoes, Principal Façade Engineering for VK and MSFE (member of the Society of Façade Engineers).

Koen Van Herpe, Principal Fire Safety Engineering for VK, concurs. “The visual inspections and analyses of the facade generate the correct data about the facades’ fire safety. From thereon, solutions are offered through an integrated approach for remedial works, such as adding fire and smoke stops every of every other floor. To evaluate the needed measures, the fire safety criteria on the building level also play a part. It is clear that this method can only work through an integrated approach from façade and fire safety experts”, concludes Koen Van Herpe.

Facade strategy as value engineering

As such, VK Architects & Engineers can also screen existing real estate for fire safety, in applying these unique engineering services. Cities and local authorities are well aware of the added value of this kind of engineering. So the key word is value engineering, as our engineers aim for performance optimisation with regard to cost-efficiency, extreme safety and with much respect for high-quality architecture. For that reason, it is beyond doubt that value engineering will get ever more appreciation in the conceptual phase of new buildings. After all, fire-resistant facades adds up to more than the sum of the right choice of materials and correct fire spread applications … A true façade strategy will deliver the safest and most cost-efficient solution!

Conclusion

Can a tragedy like Grenfell happen in Belgium? Yes, but the risk can be greatly reduced if the right experts are involved in the design from the concept phase onward, and if their advice is acknowledged.