Designing to Enhance Fire Safety

Winter 2023

Building structure on fire with gate surrounding it.

In the United States, making buildings code-compliant and fire-resistant costs tens of billions of dollars annually. Despite these expenditures, major knowledge gaps still exist about how fires affect structures. Filling those gaps could allay costs while further enhancing safety. “Fire is this very basic hazard that’s been with us forever, and yet we still don’t fully control or fully understand it,” says Thomas Gernay, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Systems Engineering. “If we can make improvements in the way we design structures and deal with the hazards of fire, it would have a huge impact given the scale of the problem.”

To help achieve this goal of saving more lives and preserving property, Gernay has co-developed an innovative software program dubbed SAFIR (usually pronounced “SAY-fer,” a play on the words “safe” and “fire”). The software allows users to create virtual representations of buildings and accurately models the structures’ behavior when subjected to fire. “SAFIR is a state-of-the-art program that brings together thermal models, heat transfer, and structural analysis in a way that couldn’t be done before,” says Gernay.

The 3D models in SAFIR include straight-line structural elements of beams and columns coupled with planar elements of walls and slabs. Critically, the program accounts for the differing properties of common building materials such as steel, concrete, timber, aluminum, and gypsum, along with standard thermally insulating products. The program captures how certain materials weaken when exposed to fire, diminishing their ability to carry structural loads, and how some materials expand so the structure loses its intended shape. The interplay of these load redistributions and deformations can ultimately lead to dangerous building collapses.

More than 250 institutions worldwide—including universities, research centers, and design offices—are already using SAFIR. By revealing the design and material choices that improve fire resistance and structural integrity, SAFIR can guide engineers and architects toward better solutions for resilient residential and commercial buildings.

With climate change increasing the risks of wildfires, Gernay says the insights from SAFIR are set to become even more important.

“We will need to put a lot of thought into how we build moving forward,” Gernay says.

Thomas Gernay pictured smiling with glasses and grey suit.
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