A Better Approach to Fire Safety with Concrete Building Design

Concrete building design

Non-combustible, insulated concrete form (ICF) construction is a better approach to fire safety over wood construction. ICF walls prevent the spread of fire and smoke, containing it to its point of origin until first responders' arrive. They also stay intact and won't collapse due to fire, protecting the occupant’s safety and the structure’s integrity.

The Benefits of Building Multi story Residential Buildings with ICF Blocks 1

Why We Need Fire-Resistant Commercial Buildings

Fire poses a significant threat to commercial structures, killing more Americans than all natural disasters (tornados, hurricanes, etc.) combined. In 2018, 103,600 fires damaged non-residential buildings, leading to 1,025 injuries, 85 deaths, and a loss of $2.656 billion. In 2019, there were 120,000 fires, causing 1200 injuries, 110 deaths, and a loss of $4.311 million.

Fire damaged businesses and institutions lose revenue while repairing, rebuilding, and replacing ruined inventory, and the expense to set up a temporary location further cut into a business's bottom line. Every year, fires in commercial buildings threaten occupant's safety and cause tremendous financial devastation.

Active and Passive Fire Protection for Commercial Building Design

Fire safety features in your commercial building affect many people's well-being: your customers, employees, contractors, vendors — these people trust that your building has proper and code-compliant fire protection measures. Vital fire safety components of a commercial building include both active and passive fire protection.

Active Fire Protection

Active fire protection requires action or motion to combat a fire. Examples of active protection include fire alarms, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, sprinklers, fire suppression systems, and clearly marked exits.

Passive Fire Protection

Passive fire protection divides the building into compartments with fire-resistant-rated walls, preventing the spread of fire and smoke between floors, doors, windows, and vents. Passive fire protection also includes exterior walls that stop fire and smoke from entering a structure. Passive fire protection must protect vital structural elements to prevent the collapse of a building.

Passive fire-resistant construction requires fire (common) walls to compartmentalize the units within a high-rise building. A firewall extends continuously from the foundation to the underside of the fire-protected roof sheathing. It may also extend through the roof to a parapet closure. Typically, firewalls obtain a three to four-hour fire-resistance rating and are thicker than standard walls.

Building Codes and High-Rise Buildings

The current International Building Code (IBC) allows heavy timbers on high-rise construction up to 85-feet high (8 stories). Architects can design taller wood structures, as long as the designs meet code and perform better than a similar steel or concrete structure — an expensive and time-consuming process. Furthermore, the 2021 IBC will include provisions for up to 18 stories of Type IV-A construction (with additional fire-resistance ratings and levels of required non-combustible protection).

The combustibility of wood and the difficulty in reducing flame spread challenges builders to construct safe fire-resistant wood hi-rise structures. Between 2009-2013, U.S. fire departments responded to an annual average of 14,500 reported structure fires in high-rise buildings.

Moreover, during construction, fires in high-rise wood buildings can rapidly spread, collapsing the unprotected frame. In 2017, the National Fire Protection Association (FPA) reported 13 fires involving wood-framed apartment buildings under construction, amounting to more than $20 million in damages. This has dramatically influenced costs for construction insurance and on-site fire protection during the construction stage.

Addressing Wildland Fire Ignition

The NFPA 1144 standard assesses the methodology of wildland fire ignition hazards around existing structures, providing new construction requirements to lessen the potential of a structure igniting from wildland fires. This standard reflects the increasing wildfires and longer wildfire seasons that are threatening commercial buildings and homes.

NFPA recommends non-combustible building materials that limit flame spread and maintain their integrity during a fire. These include non-combustible, fire-resistant exterior walls, Class A roof covering, flame- and ember-resistant vents and eaves, proper glazings, and limitations on exterior overhangs.

ICF High-Rise Construction — A Better Approach to Fire Safety Over Wood

The Benefits of Building Multi story Residential Buildings with ICF Blocks 2

ICF building design provides a better solution than wood construction for achieving fire safety.

  • ICF exterior and interior walls do not burn, warp, or twist when exposed to high temperatures. Firewall tests (ASTM E119) indicate that ICF walls can stand up to continuous gas flames and temperatures of 1093°C (2000°F) for 4 hours. Wood-frame walls collapse in less than one hour.
  • The flame retardant added to ICFs makes it self-extinguishing
  • Flame spread testing (ASTM Test Method E-84) conducted by the PCA found that ICF flames move at one-fifth the rate as wood flames.
  • ICF interior walls act as separation walls that slow the spread of fire within a building's interior. ICF walls can withstand intense heat for four hours, while wood-frame walls may collapse within an hour or less of flame exposure

Insurance Rates Reflect the Fire-Resistance and Durability of Concrete Construction

Insurance rates reflect the superior fire-resistance of ICF over wood for commercial building wall systems. A study by the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) found that the builder's risk insurance was 22-72 percent less expensive for concrete than wood structures, while commercial property insurance was 14-65 percent less for concrete than wood buildings. The NRMCA credits the lower commercial building insurance rates of concrete structures to its durability against fire and degradation.

Fox Blocks ICF - A Superior Approach to Commercial Building Fire Safety

Fox Blocks straight 4 IMG 9877

Fox Blocks ICF offers a better approach to fire safety than wood construction. The 6-inch Fox Blocks have an ASTM E119 fire rating of four hours (twice the two-hour requirement), and ASTM E84 reported values for flame speed of below 25, and smoke development of below 450. Fox Blocks fire-resistant interior walls divide a building into compartments, significantly stopping the spread of fire and smoke at floors, doors, windows, and vents. Fox Blocks ICF exterior walls prevent fire and smoke from entering a structure. ICF walls protect critical structural elements, stopping the collapse of a building, remaining structurally sound after 4 hours of continuous exposure to fire.

Fire Safety for a Commercial Building Requires Active and Passive Fire Protection

Protecting a building and its occupants' safety from dangerous fires requires both active and passive fire protection. Active fire protection provides solutions to put out a fire, while passive fire protections aim to stop it spread, limiting the damage.

Please call Fox Blocks professional today to learn more about improving fire safety with an ICF design.