Fire Safety in Green, PassivHaus and Energy Smart Housing | CJ Walsh


Architect + Fire Consultant, CJ Walsh

The first International conference on Sustainable Fire Engineering (SFE 2016) will take place in Dublin on 28-30 September 2016 (full details here: Link). The BRegs Blog received permission from one of the SFE 2016 Management Team, Architect and Fire Consultant, CJ Walsh, to publish  edited extracts from one of his blog posts on fire safety and housing. The full post may be accessed here (Link:). This issue remains relevant as the report on last year’s Newbridge Fire, scheduled for publication at the end of January, remains under lock and key at the Department of the Environment. Questions are also now being asked on the safety and value for money of the timber-framed ‘rapid’ housing under construction in Ballymun.

Extract: It Happened One Night!

Maybe if it hadn’t been that particular night, amidst all the festivities of New Year’s Eve 2015, we would never have heard about the ‘Address Hotel’ fire, in Dubai (UAE)A long search on the Internet afterwards led to the detailed, post fire analysis report on the 2014 Lacrosse Docklands Fire, in Melbourne (Australia) followed by some more searching, and a very large can of worms opened up on similar nasty façade (external fabric) fires in many, many countries involving large chunks of flaming debris falling from terrific heights, carried by the wind to a significant distance away from the building of fire origin.


‘Address Hotel’ fire, Dubai

Some people have tried to suggest that the only reason for these fires is inadequate building codes or regulations.  This is not so.  The reason for these fires is much more than that, it’s the ‘SYSTEM’ !   In other words, how the International Construction Sector is organised and goes about its ordinary, everyday activities and tasks.  We must also talk about poor quality design and construction and a lack of stringent, independent enforcement of effective building codes, regulations and standards.  I have written this down many times before:

Self-Regulation is NO Regulation!

It is clearly and amply evident that Conventional Fire Engineering as currently practiced, internationally, is no longer ‘fit for purpose’.


The general public was shocked and stunned, to put it mildly, by a very rapid and extensive 2015 Terraced Housing Fire on the outskirts of the Dublin Region.


Millfield Manor, Newbridge Fire 30th March 2015

The 2015 Terraced Housing Fire, shown above, should not have been a surprise to the ‘System’ in Ireland.  Research carried out in the U.S.A., Belgium and The Netherlands since 2012, and a serious PassivHaus Apartment Fire in Köln, Germany, on the night of 5 February 2013 have all shown that the modern home (highly insulated, airtight, packed with electronic equipment and wiring, and fast-burning synthetic furnishings, etc.) is the ‘perfect storm’ of fire conditions and outcomes.  More open residential design + increased fuel loads + new construction systems and materials = faster development of fires, much reduced times to flashover, far less time for occupant evacuation, particularly people with activity limitations and shorter building collapse times

The time to flashover in modern high-performance housing, i.e. Sustainable/Green/PassivHaus/Eco/Bio/+Energy/Low Carbon/Zero Carbon/Smart can be seven times faster than in conventional/legacy housing or less than five minutes, compared with just over 29 minutes! All of this research can be found on the Links & Docs Page of the SFE 2016 DUBLIN Website.

Let us be crystal clear; there is nothing Sustainable/Green/PassivHaus/Eco/Bio/+Energy/Low Carbon/Zero Carbon/Smart about the post-fire scenes of destruction shown above.  And only for the physical separation between terraces, which can be clearly seen in the photograph below the fire would have kept spreading.


Millfield Manor, Newbridge Fire: 30th March 2015


Without a balanced, proper approach to the issue of Fire Safety in this type of modern, high-performance housing occupant safety is seriously threatened.

Reality – Reliability – Redundancy – Resilience !

So what needs to change?  In Ireland, our immediate problem is Timber-Framed Housing and the following is an outline of what must change NOW!

  1. Party Walls, i.e. the walls separating one house from another, must be constructed of solid masonry, with a uniform and uncompromised thickness of at least 200 mm, plastered on both sides, not dry-lined, for adequate smoke resistance and be continued above the roof covering for at least 300 mm.
  2. An effective Fire Detection System must be installed.  The conventional ‘package’ of one smoke detector per floor in the hallway and staircase of a standard 2 storey semi-detached house is nowhere near being adequate.
  3. An effective Residential/Domestic Fire Suppression System must be installed, e.g. low pressure water mist.
  4. Intermediate Timber Floors and Evacuation Routes, including fire resisting doorsets, must be reliably protected from fire and smoke.  The minimum period of fire and smoke resistance must be linked to local fire service support infrastructure.  In other words, the local fire services must be allowed sufficient time to arrive at the scene of a fire in strength to search for any occupants still remaining in the fire building and to bring the fire under control.
  5. Uppermost Ceilings under a trussed timber roof structure, including any trap doorsets into the roof space, must be similarly and reliably protected from fire and smoke.  Once fire enters a roof space, the light trussed timber structure will collapse within a few minutes.
  6. Front and Back Entrance/Egress Doors must be outward opening.  In the 2013 German PassivHaus Apartment Fire, the occupant found it extremely difficult to open inward opening doors and windows because of the high positive pressure caused by the developing fire.
  7. Internal Linings of External Walls must comprise 2 layers of plasterboard, with all joints staggered … steel fixed, at not more than 150 mm centres.  Once fire breaches the internal lining of an external wall, the whole building will become involved in the fire.  Horizontal and vertical fire sealing behind these linings, even if properly installed are too little and too late.
  8. Frontline fire fighters must be supported by specialist structural engineering and hazard appraisal units and light/portable/reliable Thermal Imaging Cameras must be recognized as a standard tool of fire fighting.
  9. In refurbishment projects where insulation is fixed to internal faces of external walls similar fire safety problems are present, and they must be solved.  Refer again to the PassivHaus Apartment Fire in Köln, Germany, on the night of 5 February 2013.

About the Author: C.J. Walsh   B Arch FRIAI MIBCI MIFS MIFireE is a Consultant Architect, Fire Engineer & Technical Controller. He is also a consultant to An Bord Pleanála and legally registered, in Ireland, as an ‘Architect’.

C.J. Walsh is a Member of:

  • International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (CIB)
  • Working Commission 14: ‘Fire Safety’ – He is Chairperson of CIB W14 Research Working Group IV: ‘Structural Reliability & Fire-Induced Progressive Damage’.  He also chairs CIB W14 Research Working Group V: ‘Fire-Incident Human Behaviour, Abilities & Perception’;
  • Task Group 87: ‘Sustainable Urban Resilience – Benchmarking & Performance Indicators (Metrics)’ ;
  • EU EYPD Expert Group on Accessibility;
  • EU Expert Working Group on Urban Environment Research;
  • NSAI AASCC – Accessibility-for-All Standards Consultative Committee of the National Standards Authority of Ireland;
  • IFE – Institution of Fire Engineers.

Other posts of interest:

Fire-fighting | Rush and Lusk School

Priory Hall & Longboat Quay: “I’m convinced there are others” | Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Michael Clifford: “when will we address cracks in construction?” Irish Examiner

Ministerial Review into Fire Safety is “…a joke” | Irish Examiner

Is Limerick Hotel fire a 3rd “Lucky Escape”?

Conditions perfect for curtailment of house building – including BC(A)R Costs | Independent

Key Elements Which Form the Basis of Effectively Functioning Building Legislation

Longboat Quay | Irish Times Letters to the Editor

You can still buy a non-compliant home…and it’s all perfectly legal | SI.9 Loopholes

1 thought on “Fire Safety in Green, PassivHaus and Energy Smart Housing | CJ Walsh

  1. Archie O'Donnell

    1. Can this ‘research’ not be quoted in the body of the article?
    2. How does Milford Manor fall into the ‘modern high-performance housing category ‘, Which one of these is it exactly? ‘Sustainable/Green/PassivHaus/Eco/Bio/+Energy/Low Carbon/Zero Carbon/Smart.’


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