Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on February 8, 2021.

Green Questions

Green building materials and systems hold the promise of revolutionizing the built environment—but only if we understand their fire performance


Going green isn’t just a mantra for the environmentally conscious—over the last decade it’s become increasingly mainstream. In an effort to use less energy, save resources, and reduce pollution and waste, we now embrace alternative energy, support energy efficiency, and practice recycling. Going green has gained political traction with the proposed Green New Deal in the United States and the European Green Deal.

It’s important to recognize that going green isn’t just about electric cars, or solar panels—it’s also about buildings. Structures are big consumers of energy for heating and cooling, for example. A great deal of energy is also consumed in the production of the construction products used to create those buildings. Additionally, at the end of their lives buildings are transformed into a significant amount of waste. For all of these reasons, buildings need to be more sustainable and energy efficient, as well as resilient to natural and manmade disasters.

Many products and systems have been developed to make buildings greener. While I am all for going green, I am increasingly worried about the impact these new products and technologies have on building safety—especially fire safety. Adding insulation to buildings impacts how a fire develops within the building by keeping the heat in. Airtight buildings increase this effect and can even produce pressure differences inside the building that can complicate escape and rescue. Many new construction products are combustible and can potentially feed the fire. Adding solar panels to a building adds potential ignition sources within the building envelope.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation recently published a study that examined many of these issues. In “Fire Safety Challenges of Green Buildings and Attributes,” the authors concluded that, in the eight years since they had published a similar report, significant advancements had been made—but gaps still remain. They confirmed my worries that fire safety is not incorporated proactively into the product development of green building materials and systems, and that additional tools are needed to assess the fire performance of those products.

Having fire safety take a back seat to other performance parameters in buildings is nothing new—fire safety always seems to be playing catch-up with developments occurring in the construction industry. Fire safety professionals may be aware of a potential problem, but it often requires a catastrophic fire before the construction industry musters the urgency to address the issue. That’s why many major changes to fire codes and regulations are the result of specific events. This method of design by disaster might have been appropriate in the Middle Ages, but it is unacceptable today. We need to eliminate the siloed thinking that relegates fire performance to an annoying afterthought at the end of product development or building design. Product and building design should be conducted holistically, considering all performance objectives through the entire process.

The authors of the recent green buildings study present the concept of sustainable and fire-resilient buildings and communities, with the aim of developing and promoting a holistic approach to achieving fire resiliency objectives in building design. This is a great concept that I want to see implemented in the regulatory process as part of any future green deals.

But this will not happen unless fire safety professionals emerge from their silos and work with the green community to increase the understanding of the interdependencies between fire safety, resilience, and sustainability. After all, a building that burns is neither green nor sustainable. 

Birgitte Messerschmidt is director of the Applied Research Group at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler