A new course at UCL seeks to address the UK’s shortfall in fire safety design expertise

Stefan Lengen

Stefan Lengen

University College London’s Department of Civil Environmental Geomatic Engineering (CEGE) has created the UK’s first Fire Safe Design MArch programme, to empower architects and design team members to create fire safe designs. The programme has been established because there is international concern about fire safety resulting from recent fatal events.

Of particular concern is whether these events are caused by necessary design changes to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergency and the push towards achieving net zero carbon buildings. The ethical imperative is to improve and innovate the built environment while making it a safer place for communities.

The Fire Safe Design MArch programme is a stand-alone, non-accredited, 12-month full-time (or 24-months part-time) degree of 180 credits. The structure of the course is built around the design studio, in the Bartlett tradition.

Students will be supported by a range of modules on fire safe design skills and research, taught by Professor Jose Torero – an internationally leading and highly innovative fire expert – alongside world-class academics from the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture and the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering.

The programme will be necessarily experimental and innovative; inviting students to construct architectures that respond to desired functionalities, while considering fire and human behaviour – challenging and critiquing conventional assumptions that unnecessarily limit creativity.

This new programme is also about creativity and innovation

The students will be exposed to the theory and practices of the fire laboratory, and to the visceral feelings of the heat and smoke of fire itself. They will discover how to align fire strategies with myriad design variables, creating a diverse built environment that addresses current social, cultural, political, and ecological inequalities.

This new programme is also about creativity and innovation, and seeks to challenge existing conventions. It takes inspiration from ARUP’s Margaret Law, who was an early pioneer of fire safety engineering. Half a century ago she was questioning received wisdom and seeking to improve fire safety by examining the way buildings behaved in a fire and the underlying performance of materials. 

Basic awareness of fire behaviour can drive design in directions where the role of a specialist fire engineer becomes simple, effective, and understandable, easing the responsibility of all parties. We want to learn from successful relationships with other engineering disciplines – including structural, mechanical, electrical and public health engineering – where architects with no formal engineering qualifications are able to develop schemes that are workable from the outset.

Far from being limited in their intellectual ambition, students will be encouraged to explore the boundaries of design; supported by technical experts. Through an experimental process, students will learn how to combine research, theory and practice to design sophisticated and fundamentally safe buildings.

The programme is looking for highly motivated and passionate qualified architects, including RIBA Part 2 students, with an interest in developing their design skills in a manner that focuses on fire safe design. Candidates should be interested in gaining the knowledge and experience that enables them to confidently design fire safe buildings without reliance on prescriptive approaches; and to understand and address the issues of fire that are applicable to the entire built environment.

“A fire engineering designer more than ever is a critical part of a building design team”

We seek to empower students to create elegant urban designs that are both fire-safe and sustainable. As professor Jose Torero, head of civil engineering at UCL has observed: “Fire influences every decision you make in building design, therefore this course has the potential to unlock the greatest breadth of design options available to you as an architect.” 

Associate Professor Tim Lucas from The UCL Bartlett School of Architecture and Partner of Price & Myers said: “A fire engineering designer more than ever is a critical part of a building design team.

“The implications of fire on buildings are clearly grave and the skills to both interpret regulations and pragmatically reach safe and workable fire engineering output is lacking in the construction industry. Those fire engineers who do exist are all over worked and unable to address the growing need for this advice that has arisen in recent years.

“This course has the potential to enable more buildings to be engineered to be safe and perform well in fire. At the moment there are just not enough qualified experts to address the general degree of inexperience and uncertainty in this area”.

Fire safety is practised globally through a combination of prescriptive and functional requirements. The balance between the two vary greatly between countries, thus both approaches will be taught and practiced in this programme.

There is widespread demand for fire and life safety design education from within the UK

For example, in Switzerland they have recently changed the Building Regulation Framework to further enable buildings with timber structures. The question is no longer whether to build with wood, but only how. In contrast, others – like the UK – have made it tougher. This programme will enable you to understand why.

The UK statutory body responsible for setting the standards of entry to the Register of Architects – ARB – has decided that it should take action to ensure that all of those admitted to the Register have the necessary skills, knowledge, experience, and behaviours required to design safe buildings for people to live and work in. ARB has now stated that all architects must be competent in fire and life safety design, regardless of the type or scale of the project.

ARB is currently undertaking a significant review of the competencies required for joining and remaining on the Register and are in dialogue to change the nature of architectural education, which may include accreditation of specialist programmes such as this one.

There is widespread demand for fire and life safety design education from within the UK architectural profession; and recognition following the Grenfell Inquiry, that all architects need to maintain an adequate level of competency in fire safety matters. The Fire Safe Design MArch programme offers a credible route to fulfilling this core competency; and as a result, this course has gained significant support from the profession.

A key aim of the Fire Safe Design MArch programme is to give the students the expertise and agency to develop bespoke design strategies that are fire safe; to have the skills and expertise to be at the forefront of safe design strategies for complex buildings and new and emerging forms of construction. Programme graduates will become future design leaders, skilled in an aspect of design (i.e. fire safety) that we know the industry will need when delivering the next generation of sustainable cities.