Leading experts highlight risk for residents in older apartment blocks

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Smoke ventilation in communal areas can make all the difference between life and death, and repair and rebuild.

One of the country’s best known smoke ventilation manufacturers, Whitesales, is pressing to highlight the importance of sound fire safety design in flats, after a series of fires around the country revealed a historical lack of strategy. Smoke ventilation is one area where making the right decision can mean the difference between life and death, and repairing or rebuilding.

That’s because smoke overpowers people before they have time to escape. In fact, smoke inhalation kills more people than the flames consuming the building.

There are numerous causes of domestic fire, from arson through to the far more common: electrical faults, candles left unmonitored and kitchen incidents such as chip pan fires. People who live in individual homes can take all the precautions necessary to reduce their risk. But residents of communal buildings, such as apartment blocks, are at risk not just from other residents’ behaviour, but historical building design decisions and the action or inaction of building managers. Depending on the size and configuration of the building, there may even be just one shared escape route – and that can rapidly fill with fumes and smoke.

Taking responsibility for fire safety

This makes sensible fire prevention and safety an essential responsibility for residential block managers, contractors working on refurbishments, and new building designers. One fundamental aspect that’s been largely overlooked in older buildings, but which must legally be adequate in new builds, is smoke ventilation.

Apartment blocks feature shared access routes – hallways and stairwells – which can quickly fill with smoke in a fire, reducing visibility and displacing breathable air. The only way to prevent this happening – in combination, where possible with a building management system-controlled sprinkler system – is by fitting smoke vents that exhaust smoke and fumes fast and efficiently enough to allow people to make their way to safety.

A lesson in apartment block smoke ventilation

A recently completed residential development in Greenwich, London, provides the ideal model for building designers and refurbishment contractors. Wilmott Dixon Housing’s development Prime Place contains 181 apartments overlooking the City and Canary Wharf. The project required a combination of bespoke smoke vents, some incorporating roof access. While Whitesales supplies standard-sized fixed smoke vents and manually and electrically operated access hatches, these needed to be designed for very specific measurements, sited over atriums, stairwells, corridors and smoke shafts.

The same principles apply to any communal residential building. High-security Em-Vent smoke vents and Em-Hatch access hatches can be networked with a control panel, or the building management system, and a measured distribution of smoke and fire detectors. The Em-Vents and Em-Hatches are fully open within 60 seconds, which draws smoke out fast, no matter how quickly a fire is taking hold. That’s a genuinely life-saving feature in the event of a fire, buying residents vital time to make their escape.

Each of these products are fitted with impact-resistant glazing that lets daylight into the building – an important energy-saving consideration but also crucial to providing natural light when a fire may have destroyed internal lighting.

As architects and contractors know, all smoke vents specified for new buildings must be certified to EN 12101-2. In many cases, however, older blocks of flats lack the necessary smoke ventilation to protect occupants in the event of fire. Building managers and housing associations can, however, retrofit a networked smoke detection and ventilation system with relative ease and inexpensively. The best options on the market, such as the Em-Vent, are delivered pre-assembled and can be supplied with dedicated upstands, which makes even retrofitting straightforward. Adding powerful smoke ventilation, ideally as part of a comprehensive fire safety review, can quite literally be the difference between life and death.

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