Fire Safety

Fire Safety Engineering Prize 2017

The 2017 Ove Arup Foundation Prize in Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh has been presented to Joshua Hutchison.

This prize was given by Head of School Professor Hugh McCann at the School of Engineering’s Annual Awards Ceremony, held at the National Museum of Scotland.

Interview: Luke Bisby, Arup Professor of Fire and Structures

Professor Luke Bisby
Professor Luke Bisby

Luke Bisby was appointed Arup Professor of Fire and Structures at Edinburgh University on 1 April 2013, after completing a five-year readership as Senior Research Fellow in Structures and Fire, co-funded by the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

We caught up with Professor Bisby to ask him about his achievements over the last five years of Foundation support, and how he anticipates his research to develop in the coming months and years.

What would you highlight as the main developments of your five years as Senior Research Fellow in Structures and Fire?

Two things, I think: I have a much better sense of what the goals and drivers of fire safety are within the built environment. I’ve come to understand the economic drivers, and also the massive lobby groups that are working in the background to promote steel buildings versus concrete buildings and vice versa, and the regulatory and committee structures that are all driven by high-paid lobbyists. That is very important in informing how an academic will attack this and have any hope of being successful.

The science isn’t what’s driving this process; good science is not going to change an industry. And that’s something that I’ve come to know quite acutely.

The second thing that I’ve become very interested in is the broader context of trying to understand from a sociological perspective how it is that this dance between power and expertise in this profession actually manifests itself, so who holds the power, who makes the decisions, what expertise do they have, and how do they use it. That has led me to really broaden my interests.

Do you think you have changed your approach, fundamentally?

Well, over the last five years I have been doing various nuts-and-bolts techy little things, looking at various problems specific to various types of buildings, but these are things that are ‘not unexpected’ [in this role].

What’s been formative for me is that, when I came to Edinburgh, I felt that the science was the only benefit that I could have in the engineering community; it was the only thing I was interested in, and [I thought] that if I did that well, change would happen. And I was absolutely wrong about that.

About four years ago I went to a trustees’ meeting and presented who I was and what I intended to do, and one of the people there rather pointedly said, ‘don’t you think the broader context is as or more important?’ I thought to myself, well, that would be a waste of my time. But [Arup Trustee] Sir Duncan Michael said to me we should go to Edinburgh and talk about fire safety to a group of sociologists of science and technology in the Institute for Science, Technology & Innovation at Edinburgh University – people of whom I was completely unaware.

Everything I was saying to Robin Williams, who was the director of their centre – about my frustrations in dealing with the fire safety community, the regulatory processes, the role of standardised testing and how I felt it stifled innovation – well, he said, ‘there are big bodies of knowledge that can inform discussion around all of these issues and help you change them and understand them’. And I was sold immediately.

Then I worked with Robin to put together a bid to hire a sociologist to take the time to investigate some of these issues around the role of regulation in innovation, the role of standardised testing, power and expertise in our profession, whether fire and safety engineering even is a profession; really profound questions about what I do.

So that’s been like a three-year process of opening my eyes to the broader social context.

Have there been any other significant developments besides broadening the scope of your research?

The other major development was a grant we got from the Lloyds Register Educational Trust, now the Lloyds Register Foundation. We asked them for money to hold one-week global technical leadership seminars in fire safety engineering, where we would invite people from around the world whom we knew were open-minded – or were not, intentionally – to come and spend five days talking about what we considered to be the difficult issues for the community – but in a very safe environment, so they would feel empowered to be honest and speak freely. And we learned from this the our audience is not our own [fire-safety] community.

We [invited] very high-level architects and structural engineers who aren’t fire-safety people who are broadly in charge of the conceptual design of these incredible structures. So we had for instance Bill Baker, who was the structural engineer on the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. And David Scott, who was Arup’s top tall-building designer.

What we realised was that they are our audience. When we talked to them about things that we felt weren’t right, they had no idea that this was the case. They existed with the presumption that everybody is doing the right thing. And the look on their faces was like, ‘We can’t believe that the people who we think are in charge of this actually don’t have the answers that we assume they’ve been operating under.’

And we’ve had [attendees] subsequently partner with us on research grants because [they’ve] become such proponents of this more open-minded thinking.

One of the things we realised was that the architects don’t seem to have any real sense of the extent to which these things are influencing their conceptual thinking.

The fire safety regulations that architects just default to fundamentally dictates the floorplan of every building they design.

They don’t think about it in the context that that travel distance is based on some absurd historical rule from the late 1800s that makes no rational sense in the modern world, and that with a little bit of thinking they could totally get away from. And yet every building they design are designed fundamentally on this basis. When we told them this, they couldn’t believe it.

The outcome of these discussions is that Foster & Partners, incredibly, three months ago hired one of our PhD students to be in-house fire-safety technical guidance. Fosters, until recently, didn’t employ engineers at all.

So how about the future of your work; where do you see it leading?

Well, I’ve just started a PhD project with someone from Arup Fire, where the Arup Fire person is someone who graduated from our course two years ago and is now supervising the student here, so it sort of comes full circle where the graduate now is involved in the research programme again.

Do you think you have a chance of changing those regulations that you feel are stifling innovation?

Changing the regulations is a career-long objective I think; that’s not going to happen in two or three years. But there are all sorts of positive signs. For instance the hiring of this person at Foster’s; the fact that guys who work for the best architectural practices in the US are really proactive about this now; the fact that we are producing 20-25 graduates a year who have the skills and the attitude and the knowledge that’s needed to make this happen; and the fact that every single one of them is getting a job and we’re being asked for 10 more and can’t supply them. We just don’t have the people.

So the fact that the industry is screaming for people who have the skills that we have intentionally given them to make the change we want I think can only lead to that change happening eventually.

Foundation beneficiary takes up new Professorship

Professor Luke Bisby
Professor Luke Bisby

Luke Bisby has been made Arup Professor of Fire and Structures at Edinburgh University, after completing a five-year readership as Senior Research Fellow in Structures and Fire, co-funded by the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Professor Bisby is also acting director of the University’s BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering and deputy head of the Institute for Infrastructure and Environment.

To mark the successful conclusion of the current support from the Foundation, we caught up with Professor Bisby to congratulate him and ask about his achievements over the last five years, and how he anticipates his research to develop in the future.

The extended interview can be found here.


Fire safety funding goes to Edinburgh’s ISSTI

The Ove Arup Foundation has appointed the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation (ISSTI) to carry out research into the sociology of fire safety.

An investment of £200,000 over five years will fund an initiative called ITSAFE (‘Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering Expertise’). The purpose of ITSAFE will be to bring together figures from across the disciplines to research how engineers and designers can more intelligently approach fire safety.

In welcoming the support, director of ISSTI Robin Williams said: “This reflects our success in putting together an interdisciplinary consortium, bringing together social science, fire safety engineering and architectural design, equipped to examine these complex questions.”

Sir Duncan Michael, Ove Arup Foundation trustee and former chairman, said: “We are excited to explore new approaches to reducing risks from fire, which still kills too many people. While there have been significant technical advances in fire safety, further progress will be limited without changes in policy and regulation and in the practices and responses of professions and organisations involved and the wider public.”

ITSAFE will be recruiting an ambitious scholar to lead this research programme, and a PhD student to build expertise in this area. Interested parties should contact Robin Williams at

The Sociology of Fire Engineering?

Dr Luke Bisby was asked at the launch of the new fire research fellowship to explain to a group of Fire Safety Engineers, Policy Makers, Architects, Firefighters, and others why he thought the University of Edinburgh’s project on ‘Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety Engineering Expertise (IT-SAFE)’ was so exciting and important. His speech is reproduced below.

Good afternoon, and thank you for attending this talk on our new research collaboration, IT-SAFE, which I find myself rather surprised to say I consider among the most important activities I have ever been involved in as a university academic and as an engineer.

For me, this new collaboration with sociologists of science is fundamentally about making technology matter. It is about making me, my colleagues, and my engineering discipline maximise our impact.

I’m a structural engineer, or rather more specifically a structural fire engineer. My specific expertise – such as it is – is in studying the thermal and physical response of materials and structures to fire. I’m interested in the weakening of materials and structures during fire… the 9/11 scenario where fires cause buildings or parts of buildings to collapse.

So why then, has sociology become so important to me?

As explanation, I hope you’ll forgive me for recounting a rather self-indulgent story of intellectual atonement.

Sir Duncan Michael, Trustee of the Ove Arup Foundation, to whom I am eternally grateful (both personally and professionally) for his support and more importantly for his prodding, will tell one story of how it is that I’ve come to work at Edinburgh, in partnership colleagues at Arup. My version of the story is somewhat simpler than his. I’ve said many times that I came to Edinburgh simply to atone for my sins.

I’ll not bore you with too many details, but my PhD in Structural Engineering, performed at Queen’s University and the National Research Council of Canada, was concerned with collapse of innovative types of columns – vertical load supporting elements in buildings – during fire.

To study this issue we did what any self-respecting structural engineer would do; we performed a number of very costly and time-consuming standard tests in large-scale fire testing furnaces. Essentially, you take a column, you place a load on it, and you heat it in a furnace until it collapses… and in doing so you “prove” that the column is safe in a building in a fire… don’t you?

We spent about half a million dollars and several years performing these tests… we spent further years building sophisticated computer models to accurately simulate the tests and predict their outcomes… and further years interpreting the results and developing simplified design guidance. We obtained underwriters’ certified fire resistance ratings for our industrial sponsors, enabling them to sell their products to architects and developers… they were very pleased… and of course being good academics we wrote lots of papers.

And I knew that none of it truly mattered.

The testing furnace wasn’t a real fire.

The test columns weren’t real columns.

They weren’t in a real building; they didn’t interact with the rest of the building.

Essentially everything in these tests was unrealistic in some fundamental and important way.

Worse than this, the important aspects of the test results could easily have been predicted using simple hand calculations.

My tests were unnecessary. My models were misguided. I was very, very clever; but I was meaningless.

So why did we do it?

We did it because the regulatory process in North America (and in most other places) for approving use of new materials in structures requires this standard furnace testing and is willing to sacrifice rational thought and scientific understanding for compliance with the “standard”. The regulatory tail was wagging the scientific dog. I saw this, and I began to feel that I didn’t deserve my PhD.

But not so in Europe… or so I thought. This was a North American problem. Europeans, particularly Scots, are much more enlightened. So when Jose Torero at the University of Edinburgh and Barbara Lane at Arup Fire, the most advanced and innovative fire engineers in the world, came knocking, how could I resist the chance to set things right.

So I came to Scotland, began to atone for my sins, and for the past three and a bit years I’ve continued my efforts to truly understand the way that materials and structures respond to real fires in real buildings; and this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But all is not well. The problems I saw in North America exist also in Europe, and globally. I remain a very frustrated man. Read my letter to the Editors of Scientific American for an indication of my frustration.

In any case, I now find myself asking a number of questions that neither I nor my engineering colleagues are equipped to answer:

How is it that structural engineers and architects have managed for more than a decade to largely ignore the key engineering significance of the events of Sept 11, 2001 – that fire can cause the total collapse of a modern office building?

Why are so few buildings engineered with fire safety explicitly considered in the initial stages of design, particularly given that we (i.e. Arup and others) have the knowledge and skills to begin to do this?

What are society’s true perceptions and understanding of the personal, financial, environmental, and social risks associated with fire, how is tolerance of these risks shaped by our testing, design, and regulatory processes, and how does this perception and tolerance of risk influence design, regulation, and policy?

How do current fire safety testing, design, and compliance processes encourage or hinder innovation? To what extent is the tail wagging the dog, and how can we change this?

In short, how can we make our technology matter?

These questions (and many others) can’t be answered by engineers alone, as much as I prefer to think we have all the answers and that rationality will always triumph. It’s my hope that engaging with sociologists of science, Robin and his colleagues, will help us to understand and influence our own playing field, leading to better, more rational and holistic design, and eventually to a safer and more sustainable built environment; and I hope that all of you will engage with us in this process.

My deepest thanks to the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering for supporting this unique initiative. Thank you for listening.