In a recent survey (by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction, and the UNESCO Chair on Sustainability) to identify tall-building research priorities, the 347 respondents gave the highest priority to fire and life safety research, with elevator research for evacuation and egress strategies scoring as high. The respondents, 27% of whom were involved in academia/university/research, even put fire research above energy-conservation research.

Frankly, I am shocked! I think the respondents’ priorities are all wrong.

Forget the survey results. Just look at the numbers. They speak volumes. Year after year, the National Fire Protection Association releases statistics that show that U.S. high-rise buildings are just about the safest places. From 2007-2011, there were 6,800 fires in high-rise apartment buildings (lots of smoking and cooking, 24/7) but only 27 civilian deaths, which may or may not have been caused by architecture and/or engineering. (That compares to 8,100 fires and 35 deaths in 1998 alone, so the number of deaths has been going down.)

In high-rise hotels, there were 400 fires and NO deaths. In high-rise hospitals, there were 200 fires and NO deaths. In office towers, there were 300 fires and NO deaths. NO DEATHS in high-rise hospitals, hotels and office buildings and only 27 in apartment towers—over four years. That’s pretty amazing.

So where’s the problem?

Additionally, the NFPA’s 2013 High-Rise Building Fires report says: “By most measures of loss, the risks of fire and of associated fire loss are lower in high-rise buildings than in other buildings of the same property uses.” 

Yet in Roadmap on the Future Research Needs of Tall Buildings, the survey respondents—which also include architects and urban planners (24%), engineers (30%), a sprinkling of owner/developer/manager types, and others (15%)—gave research to determine the “credible worst-case design fires for tall buildings” as their top priority (a score of 8.3 of 10).

Their second top priority under fire and life safety is for research to establish the impact of new sustainable materials, technologies and design strategies on fire and life safety performance. They even give high priority (a score of 8.1) to research “to develop better collaborations between architects, fire- engineers and the fire-fighting community.”

Research into that? Money spent on that? I’ve seen a lot in my 35 years covering construction, but this takes the cake.

Buildings eat up 40% of the energy used in the U.S. They pollute by the minute. But still, fire and life safety research is needed for a class of buildings—high-rises—that has a sterling safety record.

I don’t get it. So I ask a question: Since tall buildings have been performing so well in fires, why do the survey respondents give fire research such a high priority? I can only think of one answer: Perhaps their livelihoods depend on it!