Skyscraper movie still

High anxiety: preventing skyscraper disasters

Image credit: Landmark Media/Allstar

Good engineering aims to keep disasters like the one portrayed in summer blockbuster ‘Skyscraper’ where they belong – in the movies.

From the relentlessly predatory shark in ‘Jaws’ to the does-what-it-says-in-the-title ‘Snakes on a Plane’, the movie industry has based a flourishing genre on the public’s appetite to see ordinary people in extraordinarily perilous situations.

The sense of jeopardy is always tempered by the knowledge that most viewers are unlikely ever to find themselves trapped in a sinking cruise ship, earthquake zone or a bus that has to maintain a steady speed to prevent a bomb from exploding. One of the big exceptions though is the horrible possibility of being trapped at the top of a tall building through which a fire is gradually climbing, with no prospect of escape.

Hollywood feels it’s been long enough since the success of 1974 blockbuster ‘The Towering Inferno’ to revive the scenario for one of this summer’s big releases. In ‘Skyscraper’, action movie stalwart Dwayne Johnson plays that perennial disaster movie archetype: the expert who’s ignored, blamed, and who then has to solve the resulting problem.

His character, Will Sawyer, is a former FBI agent and amputee who lives with his family in The Pearl, a fictional building in Hong Kong where he’s head of security. As well as being one of the world’s tallest structures, it’s also supposed to be among the safest, which is why Sawyer’s warnings that all may not be as cosy as its owners like to claim fall on deaf ears.

This being 2018, the cause of the inevitable disaster is down to terrorism rather than ‘Towering Inferno’’s more mundane faulty wiring. The twist is that Sawyer is framed for everything and has to clear his name at the same time as saving his family, ‘Die Hard’ style, from where they are trapped above the fire line.

Universal Pictures will be hoping that its latest take on the disaster movie enjoys even a bit of the critical and commercial success that ‘The Towering Inferno’ did. Capturing the early 1970s zeitgeist, it was the highest-grossing film released in 1974 and won three of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated.

A cast that featured some of the biggest stars of the day helped; among them Paul Newman as Doug Roberts, the architect responsible for The Tower in San Francisco, which at 138 storeys is the world’s tallest building. In this case it’s shortcuts by an electrical subcontractor that lead to a fire on the 81st floor, which grows out of control during the opening ceremony. After that things just get worse as a succession of attempts to rescue the guests fails and the whole electrical system packs up. Until a climax in which water towers on the roof are blown up, flooding the building and extinguishing the fire.

Filmmakers may believe it’s important to make their central characters architects and security experts, but in real life it’s the less glamorous but equally important profession of engineering that plays a massive part in preventing fires and other incidents in tall buildings from happening in the first place, and for making sure that when they do they can be quickly brought under control and a safe evacuation carried out.

There are already several thousand buildings higher than 100 metres in cities around the globe, and more going up all the time. In terms of preventing and dealing with emergencies, they present some obvious challenges not present in smaller-scale structures. As well as controlling the movement of smoke and flames being more difficult, there’s the need for evacuation strategies that can cope with large numbers of people and designs that provide emergency services with good accessibility. It’s an area of engineering where the need to take a holistic approach rather than addressing each element separately is vital.

Suppression technologies that prevent fires taking hold in the first place so they can be quickly extinguished are well developed. One of the key principles is compartmentation – structuring the building to keep fire confined within specific areas using thick walls and fire-resistant coatings.

This failure usually happens because of penetration such as where pipes for heating and water, ducting for power, penetrate fire compartments, and those holes must be fire-proofed. Haphazard fire-proofing lets a fire use these pipes as highways to progress through a building.

However effective the containment strategy, there may be a point at which evacuation becomes necessary. Inventors have been coming up with novel ideas for decades, the latest including parachutes, external collapsible elevators and even helter skelter-style slides that would allow people to shoot to the ground under gravity.

The elephant in the room, in the UK at least, is the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. Seventy-two people died when a London block of flats was engulfed in flames. Universal had no comment to make in response to E&T’s question about whether the public inquiry that’s underway would affect the film’s release, but ‘Skyscraper’’s subject matter is obviously going to be particularly sensitive.

Indeed, events in London struck a chord in Hong Kong, where the film is set. A leader column in the South China Morning Post in the wake of Grenfell warned that the city has many old buildings with outdated fire safety facilities, and the government must be alert to the needs of owners and residents. Dangers associated with these old buildings are often compounded by their subdivision into small flats. Significant casualties and damage have resulted from fires that have highlighted hazards introduced by alterations and the danger of obstructed stairwells.

In the UK, a report by fire engineer Dr Barbara Lane blamed a “culture of non-compliance” for the rapid spread of the Grenfell fire. Combustible cladding on the outside of the building and fire doors that didn’t work properly were among the faults that are believed to have contributed to the scale of the disaster.

Although regulatory issues rarely make for entertaining plotlines, outside the fictional world of films like ‘Skyscraper’ they are the backbone of disaster prevention. One immediate outcome of Grenfell, for example, is a greater focus on competency standards for engineers working in areas linked to fire safety.

The Engineering Council, which already works with engineering institutions like the IET to develop and implement professional standards, has said it is “firmly committed” to building on existing work around competence in this area.

The need to develop a contextualised standard for chartered and incorporated engineers working on so-called ‘higher-risk residential buildings’ (HRRBs) was one of the priorities identified by an independent review of building regulations and fire safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt. A standard is already in place for electricians at engineering technician level.

An Industry Response Group will now develop proposals for for an overarching authority that would oversee competence requirements for all people working on HRRBs. Not as attention-grabbing or entertaining as films like ‘Skyscraper’, perhaps, but far more important in the real world.

‘Skyscraper’ is scheduled to be released by Universal Pictures on 13 July 2018

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