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.