Michelle Hannen reports on how designers can help with fire protection

"Buildings don't start fires, people do." It sounds like insurers are catching up with something industry has been telling them for years. But, when it comes to underwriting commercial fire risks, risk-based assessment has finally caught on, according to Peter Brierley, director for risk management services at the Fire Protection Association (FPA), a body funded by UK insurers.

"The fabric of the building is important but it's not as important as the quality of the management," Brierley says.

From 2002, the FPA has had responsibility for managing InFiReS, a fire technical research programme for insurers. Part of the work currently being done through InFiReS includes updating the Loss Prevention Council's Design Guide for the Fire Protection of Buildings, which was originally released in 2000.

Brierley, who is chairing the InFiReS passive working group, which deals with building components and their fire resistance, says the FPA's plans go beyond a mere update of the Design Guide, a hefty document weighing in at over 300 pages.

Rather than producing one document, the FPA plans to break it into several publications to improve its value and functionality.

The first of these, the Essential Principles, is expected to be released in September. Brierley says the Essential Principles will "set out the overriding philosophy and underlying requirements of insurers in respect of property protection".

"It will say what a building ought to do and how it ought to perform," he says. A core document will follow, comprising the bulk of the updated Design Guide. Brierley says: "This will be the explanation of how you achieve the principles in the Essential Principles document."

Food factories
The third set of documents will be supporting documents that address fire safety management and risk assessment for specific industries.

"These documents will be user-led, aimed at the owner/occupier more than the designers. They're really about what you do with the building once it's up," Brierley says. The first of these will deal with food factories, a controversial sector over recent years due to the problems associated with composite panels. Supporting documents on multistorey buildings and warehouses will follow.

Getting the support of the industries involved is a key element in the successful adoption of these documents, and a meeting will be held tomorrow between the FPA and food industry panels group (FIPG), which comprises representatives from various food industry trade associations. The decision to update the Design Guide coincided with the release of a Fire Risk Minimisation Guide (FRMG) by the FIPG. Brierley says that document will be incorporated into the food factories guide.

"The FRMG was a very good attempt to produce a guide that could be used by all food industry people to help them to manage their business in the best possible way and, hopefully, set the insurers' minds at rest," he says.

"It just fell perfectly into what we wanted to do, so what we'll have is a document to which both insurers and users have contributed."

Hazard levels
Brierley says the big difference between the new document and the approach to food factory risks in the existing Design Guide is a more risk-based approach. "It will be more based on an assessment of the hazard that exists. So, rather than saying all food factories are the same, we'll be saying there are different levels of hazard depending on processes."

Derek Mason, of the FIPG, applauded the FPA's approach. Mason says this is the first time the food industry has been involved with insurers in such a cooperative way.

But the spirit of cooperation has not yet been extended to all stakeholders. Brierley says that although both the Essential Principles and the core document are aimed at designers, they will not have any input into the initial development of the document.

"We do go to them for comment, so they're involved to that extent, but we always have to guard against the danger of ending up with a huge committee of people. It's actually better to produce a document and go out with the draft and say, 'does this give you a problem?'."

So, it seems, the natural tension between insurers and the design fraternity, which was heightened after the release of the original Design Guide in 2000 - with designers affronted at being told how to design buildings by insurers - will remain.

Brierley acknowledges that getting building designers to buy into the initial document was "a problem". He says that when the Design Guide was originally released "the biggest mistake made was in the way that it was marketed". This time around, things will be different, Brierley says. "We intend to be far more proactive in the way that we market the document to designers."

He hopes this will involve the support of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and other industry bodies.

But, when contacted by Insurance Times, RIBA was not aware the document was under review. RIBA director of practice, Keith Snook says: "We'd obviously prefer it if we were consulted right upfront. We could contribute and would be happy to."

Quick guide to the documents

The Design Guide: Revised

Work being done by the Fire Protection Association to update the LPC Design Guide for the Fire Protection of Buildings, which was released in 2000, will see the document split into three sections, as follows:

Essential Principles document
Outline for designers and what insurers require for the fire protection of commercial property

Core Document
Explanation for designers on how to meet the requirements outlined in the Essential Principles document

Supporting Documents
These documents, aimed at building owners and occupiers, will address fire safety management and risk assessment. Different documents will be produced for different type of buildings, including food factories, warehouses and multistorey buildings.