No more Grenfell? VK screens existing estate for social housing department
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 housing department, 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 social housing department who manages 9,000 housing units. The client wishes for an expert to produce additional research with regard to the fire-resistance of facades. The assignment concerns a limited number 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. In addition, thermographic and endoscopic research to examine the composition of the cavity wall and façade, also lends sufficient insight 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. However, this method can only work through an integrated approach from façade and fire safety experts”, 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. “A visual inspection which analyses the physical condition of the façade, identifies materials and façade composition and detects the possibilities of fire spread is not enough. Additional fire tests are often required, determining 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”, 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 amount to more than smoke exhaust, water mist, foam extinguishing, sprinkling … A true façade strategy will deliver the safest and most cost-efficient solution!
Can Grenfell happen in Belgium? Yes, but the risk is next to nil if the right experts are involved in the design from the concept phase onward, and if their advice is acknowledged.