Playing with fire

Playing with fire

A Carleton University engineer is trying to keep buildings from going up in smoke
August 26, 2010
Fire testing of parliamentary doors at the Fire
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Fire testing of parliamentary doors at the Fire Research Facility in Almonte, Ontario.
National Research Council of Canada

As one of the world’s most powerful natural forces, fire holds many different meanings to everyone. To some, it’s an instrument of destruction — and a cause for worry. For others, it means warmth during chilly weather, or just a way to roast marshmallows.

But for George Hadjisophocleous, a Carleton University professor of Civil Engineering, playing with fire is a way of life. As Industrial Research Chair in Fire-Safety Engineering, a position created by funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and FPInnovations, Hadjisophocleous uses fire experiments — both computer simulations and real-life scenarios — to help building designers improve fire safety.

His research examines both the technical and human aspects. With the help of computer models, Hadjisophocleous looks at predicting the development and spread of fires and smoke in buildings and the performance of light-frame wood buildings in a fire situation.

“People want to feel safe in their homes,” says Hadjisophocleous. “When people die in their sleep in their own homes, it doesn’t give you comfort.”

Hadjisophocleous also uses the $10-million Fire Research Facility in Almonte, Ontario to conduct his research. The facility was constructed with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Ontario Innovation Trust.

“The facility allows us to tackle research projects that couldn’t have been done otherwise,” says Hadjisophocleous. “It is a major contributor to our Fire-Safety Engineering program.”

The facility is currently being used to perform full-scale experiments to study fires in buildings and tunnels as well as to investigate the performance of fire detection and suppression systems.

A recently completed project studied the performance of heavy timber connections in fires. The results of this project helped to develop simple calculation methods that can be used by building designers to ensure that the connections used in buildings satisfy the fire resistance requirements of the National Building Code of Canada.

The facility is also an integral part of research to be carried out in the near future as part of a recently established NSERC Strategic Network on Innovative Wood Products and Building Systems.

The main goal of this network is to increase the use of wood-based products in mid-rise and non-residential buildings in Canada and overseas markets.

“Fire is one of the obstacles to the wider use of wood in building construction, says Hadjisophocleous. “Wood is a sustainable construction material with properties that make its use in building construction desirable and our research will assist in designing and constructing fire safe wood buildings.”