Quantifying the Hazards of Green Building Construction for Fire Investigation Analysis

Jason A. Sutula, PhD, PE, CFEI, CFII, CFI
Noah L. Ryder, MSFPE, MBA, PE, CFEI

Over the last several years, a continued push to design and build “green or sustainable” buildings has accelerated throughout the United States. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the term “green building” is defined as “…the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.” The goal of green building construction is to reduce the overall impact of building and development on human health and the environment.

While the concept of green building construction and green materials is important from a global perspective to ensure minimal impact of growth and development on the environment, little thought has been given to the impact of green building construction and green materials on fire initiation or fire growth within green buildings or with green materials. The risk of using these materials in building construction has been highlighted by a number of recent fires in which firefighters were killed or injured, property losses have been excessive, and unexpected fire damage has been observed.

In the event that a fire incident occurs within green building construction, the type and installation locations of the green materials can result in enhanced heat release rates and pathways of fire spread not typically observed with standard construction materials. The composition, construction, and placement of green materials in newly constructed structures runs the risk of creating fire damage that may be misinterpreted by investigators after a fire incident.

Thus, a need exists to develop a methodology that can be used to valuate and compare the potential fire growth risk associated with green materials. This paper proposes the use of the cone alorimeter as a standard test method that would allow for relevant material properties and material performance data to be obtained on green materials. Example data is presented and linked to the potential consequences of fire growth on green materials as well as the probability of a fire occurring or spreading. A simple formulation is then proposed that can be used to compare the relative performance of green materials and the risk associated with them. Finally, the example data is extrapolated within a limited example of a post-fire scene reconstruction to assess resulting damage patterns in the context of green materials.

Download the complete paper