Womens Engineering Society: Inspiring women as engineers, scientists and technical leaders

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Barbara Lane

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Dr Barbara Lane

Awards: The Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal 2008


Less is more for fire protection:  Dr Barbara Lane is a young engineer who has turned on its head the conventional wisdom on how to protect buildings during fires. Her revolutionary ideas, now being used in some of the world's most iconic new structures, show that less fire protection can be more, saving time and money as well as making buildings safer in the event of a fire.

As Technical Leader of Arup Fire, 37-year old Barbara Lane is responsible for the technical strategy driving the company's global fire consultancy business. During her PhD research at Edinburgh University and in further collaborations with the university fire research team, she has developed the application of sophisticated computer models which analyse how steel-framed structures behave during fires, to real building projects. "Traditionally fire was not seen as a structural issue," she says, "if you put fire-proof cladding on the steel to keep it cool it was deemed no longer to be a problem. However, the cladding often fell off if it wasn't properly maintained. And increasingly as a result of some real fires, it was clear it was actually unnecessary at times. What we found was that the heat of a fire fundamentally changes and weakens the structure and you need to account for that at the design stage, as you would for the effects of snow, wind or earthquakes. By contemplating structural fire response in this way, a more robust structural design can be created."

The collapse of the World Trade Centre in 2001 challenged engineers' previous understanding of how tall buildings behave in fires - Barbara worked with Edinburgh University on an analysis of the fire and subsequent progressive collapse, which now influences the design of all new tall buildings at Arup, and beyond.

For some new projects Barbara's work has enabled designers to use half the amount of passive fire protection than they would conventionally have used on a steel frame, by designing the structure itself from the start to be intrinsically more fire-resistant. Real fires like the one at London's Broadgate showed that structures without fire protection perform well in fires and a series of full-scale fire tests at Cardington, also validated the theory.

Barbara quickly recognised that her new approach could only be used in new buildings if the Approving Authorities and the Fire brigade were confident in what was being proposed so, in parallel with the structural analysis, she has led the process of developing a specific approvals process for structural fire analysis, which incorporates independent technical reviews. This gives confidence to the approving authorities as they review and then agree to the new approach on real building projects.

Sir Duncan Michael, Arup Trustee and a Fellow of the Academy, says "Thanks to Barbara's work, fire protection measures can now be targeted at the total response of a structure taking into account all the factors like the ventilation and the shape of the building. She has established structural fire engineering as a mainstream skill that will also create new business opportunities."
Barbara says "It's been fascinating applying these techniques and creating real building solutions. But most importantly I have been able to achieve this through the hard work and commitment of the structural fire engineers at Arup and our colleagues at the fire group at Edinburgh University, led by Professor Jose Torero."

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