Research on fire safety is of interest to all Canadians. The National Building Code of Canada (NBCC) has successfully contributed to bringing Canada’s fire loss record in line with that of other developed countries. To a large extent, however, these gains have been achieved on an empirical basis. With Canada’s adoption of the 2005 objective-based code, an opportunity exists to rationalise fire safety design. Objective-based codes prescribe performance objectives rather than specific building methods or materials. While they allow for greater flexibility and cost-effectiveness in design, they require a scientific understanding of fire safety engineering principles. They also require computer models and other tools to demonstrate adequate fire performance; and they require qualified people to use such tools for design or enforcement purposes.
Light-frame building construction has been very successful in North America, mostly due to its design flexibility and cost-effectiveness. Recent studies have also demonstrated its merits with respect to material usage and environmental impact. The industry represents significant export potential; however, its success will depend to a large extent on its ability to harness advanced technology for greater efficiency and credibility. Fire safety engineering will play a critical role, particularly in world markets where light-frame construction is not traditional.
Benefits to Canada
The research program provides a number of benefits to Canada, the most important of which are the following:
Providing safer and less expensive buildings for Canadians — By developing design tools and training engineering professionals in the use of them, the program will foster the design of light-frame buildings which improve the levels of fire safety while maintaining their affordability.
Improving Canada’s balance of trade — The program will develop design tools for light-frame buildings appropriate for use with performance-based codes around the world and thereby improve the opportunities for Canadians to export their construction technologies and building products.
Long-term objectives for the program
The long-term objectives of the research program are:
- To provide the scientific basis on which tools can be developed to cost-effectively deliver fire-safe, light-frame buildings under performance-based codes,
- To train highly skilled individuals who will interact with the University’s engineering and architectural groups, and with industry partners and end-users, and
- To serve as the hub of a network of educational centres on fire safety design for light-frame buildings throughout Canada.
Many organizations including both the National Research Council Canada (NRC) and Forintek Canada Corp. are developing various components of design tools for delivery of fire safety in light-frame buildings. These generally take the form of computer models or engineering correlations. The research program involves the development of an innovative, comprehensive system model for fire-risk analysis that will utilize such models to calculate the overall fire-risk levels in a building. To handle the complex interactions of the various model components that deal with fire growth and spread, smoke movement, occupant behaviour and structural response to fires, innovative techniques and methodologies will be created. These interactions are particularly complex, as some of the models involved are time dependent, deterministic models, while others are stochastic and probabilistic models. In addition, to make the system model a useful design tool for light-frame buildings, new sub-models and input data that are specific to such buildings will be developed and incorporated into the system model.
An opportunity for the Canadian wood industry and Forintek Canada Corp.
Canadian manufacturers of wood building products recognized more than a decade ago the building industry’s need for advanced technologies to aid in performance-based fire-safety design of light-frame buildings. They foresaw that without such tools, the wood industry’s current domestic and export markets would decline and the doors to potential new markets would be closed. Accordingly, they instructed Forintek Canada Corp., their industry’s national research institute, to initiate fire-research programs that would deliver those technologies. Forintek responded with a series of research initiatives: development of computer models that predict the fire-resistance of wood-stud walls and wood-joist floor assemblies, development of fire-safety design guides for wood-framed non-residential buildings, and a collaborative research project with NRC to develop structural fire resistance models for wood-stud walls. While Forintek’s fire research program has resulted in the creation of a number of important components for a comprehensive design tool for light-frame buildings, these do not in themselves constitute that tool. After careful consideration, Forintek, on behalf of all Canadian manufacturers of wood products, concluded that establishment of an Industrial Research Chair on Fire-Safety Engineering at Carleton University would be the most efficient way to deliver this critical element in the industry’s market plan. Forintek and the Canadian wood industry lacked the resources to deliver these new technologies in a timely manner on their own. Because large buildings constructed with concrete and steel are the highest priority for most public research institutions, Forintek recognized that it could not wait for them to develop design tools for light-frame buildings. Forintek might hire the services of NRC, or work collaboratively with NRC to develop these design tools, but that would still leave a gaping hole in the industry’s needs: trained professionals capable of using these new technologies to design and regulate construction of new light-frame buildings. Establishment of an Industrial Research Chair on Fire-Safety Engineering will result in delivery of the new technologies required by the Canadian wood industry and foster creation of educational programs that would produce professionals trained in the use of these design tools. Establishment of the Industrial Research Chair at Carleton University will facilitate the Chair’s access to both Forintek and NRC expertise in the development of those tools.
An opportunity for Carleton University
To fully exploit the potential of light-frame building construction, the Canadian industry needs engineers and architects with adequate skills in fire safety engineering, but this discipline is not currently (2006) taught on a regular basis at any other Canadian university. By establishing an industrial research chair and adding fire safety engineering to its curriculum, Carleton University takes the lead in promoting an integrated and scientific approach to light-frame building design and construction. It also takes advantage of the presence in Ottawa of two major fire research programs: those of Forintek and NRC.
Carleton University is uniquely positioned to develop a new research and educational program with no equivalent in Canada. Forintek’s Fire Research Group, North America’s largest private group of wood-industry scientists dedicated to fire science and engineering, has been located on campus, at the Carleton Technology Training Centre, since 1995. Staff from Forintek’s Fire Group and the University’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering have been cooperating for many years, and Dr. J.R. Mehaffey, one of Forintek’s senior scientists, is currently teaching a Fire Protection Engineering course at Carleton University. The two organizations have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to provide a framework for cooperative research and education programs.
The presence in Ottawa of a number of potential users of the research also guarantees an audience for continuing education programs aimed at the building industry or fire protection practitioners, and further strengthens Carleton University’s long-term commitment to this Chair.
Enhanced research capacity
The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has a strong and active group of faculty and Graduate students conducting high-level research with international recognition. At present, there are140 graduate students (98 Master’s and 42 doctoral candidates) in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Graduate Programs. An average of 8 PhD and 40 Masters students graduate each year and proceed to successful careers in industry, university and other private and public sectors. Research activity within the civil engineering group is especially notable in the areas of new construction materials, earthquake engineering, pavement systems design and performance, intelligent transportation systems, vehicular and pedestrian traffic modelling, geotechnical engineering, finite and boundary element analysis.
The establishment of this Chair will make equipment and personnel from other organizations such as NRC and Forintek, accessible to Carleton faculty and graduate students. For example, a high-temperature tension test rig currently in Forintek’s Vancouver Laboratory will be transferred to Carleton through the cooperation of the Chair and other Carleton faculty members with researchers at Forintek. Through the Chair and the sponsors, the University will also have access to experimental results that will be used to complement university research and to validate models developed by researchers.
The provision of fire protection in buildings is often very disjointed. In a residential or office building, it is common to have mechanical engineers designing sprinkler systems and smoke control systems; electrical engineers designing fire alarm systems; civil engineers designing fire resistant structural members; and architects designing escape routes and selecting building materials. The scenario is even more complex in factories where chemical engineers design the fire protection systems for the production line. The services that are supplied by these professionals are rarely coordinated, so economic fire protection solutions are just not achieved. In fact, the design of one professional may “defeat” the integrity of another professional’s work.
The Chair interacts with other researchers on campus in order to develop sound fire protection design tools that reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the problem. At the same time other researchers and professors on campus will be introduced to fire-protection engineering concepts. Furthermore, the Chair will be expected to prepare material for inclusion in engineering and architectural programs on campus so that all students begin to develop an appreciation of the entire breadth of fire safety as an integral function of building design and performance. This will give Carleton faculty and students a perspective not currently attainable in any Canadian University.
Fire Safety Engineering is of particular interest to faculty and students in Architecture and other building construction related disciplines. The establishment of this Chair in the department allows us to incorporate fire protection concepts into architectural design at various levels in the curriculum. At the same time, the faculty in the School of Architecture will have a vehicle to incorporate fire safety into its research and studies. The School of Architecture currently has a graduate program of studies where the proposed Chair will have the opportunity to offer a large degree of interdisciplinary collaboration in research.
Fire Safety Engineering also has strong connections with many branches of science and engineering including Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science, Economics, Business, as well as Civil and Mechanical Engineering. The program will provide a focal point for research activities in all of the above departments and will certainly be instrumental in attracting students from these departments to courses and seminars in related topics. In Civil Engineering, we have faculty members and graduate students in transportation, wood engineering and computer-aided design with a strong interest in pursuing research on the effects of fire on pedestrian evacuation from buildings, structural performance of building elements and computer modelling of fire spread, respectively. A Forintek spin-off, The Athena Institute, has worked closely with the University’s School of Computer Science in developing software for analysis of the life-cycle environmental impact of various building materials. We will build upon that relationship and attract the skills and knowledge necessary for computer design of fire-safe structures, and fire modelling. Finally we expect to create an interest in fire safety in other groups, and foster innovation through an interdisciplinary approach.
Chair integration into the University
Medium and long-term plans for the chair
Carleton University and Forintek have been planning the establishment in Ottawa of a Canadian Centre for Research and Studies in Fire Safety Science and Engineering, with close links to both organizations. The University and its industry sponsors will initiate actions to expand the Fire Safety program, further develop design tools created by the Chair, and arrange for their effective transfer to target groups. Such actions will include the creation of a framework for interaction with users of the Chair’s and Forintek’s research results, and applications for extra funding to federal (e.g. Canadian Foundation for Innovation) and provincial (e.g. the Ontario Challenge Fund) agencies. By the end of the first five years (2006), the Chair have reached cruising speed, and have developed enough stability for a long-term plan capable of yielding the expected deliverables. The Chair will also be expected to become, in the medium to long-term, the hub of a network of educational centres on fire safety design in Canada and countries importing Canadian building products and technology.