Glasgow Art School Fire

This is a terrible, terrible loss.  I never saw the building in person, but we studied it in school and even from photos you can see an elegant, original work of enormous presence and competence.  It was probably well documented, as it’s a major monument of modern architecture, so it can be restored.  All the student work and library, not so much…

What I don’t understand is how this happened.  Buildings with sprinklers don’t burn this way, even if (as is likely) they’re full of dangerous stuff like paint and solvents, and paper.  Heads need to roll; did some nitwit nix sprinkler installation because the pipes would be ugly?

UPDATE 25/V: a “fire suppression system” but not sprinklers “due to the risk of water damage” was due to be installed in three weeks.  “In buildings completely protected by fire sprinkler systems, over 99% of fires were controlled by fire sprinklers alone”, says this interesting entry, along with  “In Scotland, all new schools are sprinklered.” Canny Scots, indeed, to know the value of the lives of their children so precisely: right in between the cost of new-construction and retrofit sprinklers! If a few students and profs had been incinerated in the art school, I wonder if its flack would have been as insouciant as this: “Early speculation about a water sprinkler system either not working or yet to be installed was brushed away by a spokesman for the school, who said: ‘There has never been a sprinkler system here because of the risk of water damage to fragile artefacts if it were activated in error.'”

In any case, they now have (personal safety aside) the worst possible outcome. In 2004, retrofit sprinkler costs were about $3/ft.2 at the high end, and dry-pipe systems for locations where water damage is a concern are well-developed. If this building had been sprinklered, it would have had a small fire in the basement, promptly extinguished by sprinklers, and one room full of wet stuff. Instead the fire propagated up to the roof while the fire department was en route, the latter pumped a Niagara of water throughout the building, and taxpayers will pay tens of millions for restoration.

Fires happen. Sprinklers are ugly (though they can be hidden at a price); secondary means of egress are expensive, fire doors are a nuisance.  Right; now lets hear it for those commie oppressive job-killing thug regulators, writing and enforcing codes, that have saved us so much blood and treasure (and the firefighters who go into harm’s way when things go bad, even when the bean-counters and building owners have set them up).

By the way, do you have a nice red 5ABC extinguisher in your kitchen in plain view, near the way out? Is it in date and fully charged? Does everyone in the house know how to use it (aim at the base of the flames!)?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

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