Jane Embury looks at one consequence of rising online sales
The past eighteen months has reshaped how we buy things.
For example, the UK retail giant John Lewis said recently that there had been a “decade of changes in shopping habits in one year.”
John Lewis has managed to maintain sales volumes, with the retailer transferring lost sales from the High Street to its online platforms. It predicts that 70% of sales will be online from 2025.
One report suggests that online retail sales saw the equivalent of five years of growth in just 12 months in 2020.
According to NatWest and Retail Economics, ecommerce sales accounted for 28% of all retail spend in 2020, up from 19% a year earlier.
More importantly, the research suggests that the online trend is likely to continue. 40% of shoppers say it has transformed how they will shop in the future.
While that migration online may be obvious, less obvious is that one consequence of ecommerce is the greater need for warehousing space.
In the UK, analysis from real estate advisor Knight Frank suggests that, for every £ billion spent online, retailers require 1.36 million sq ft of space.
On that analysis, the growth of ecommerce could drive demand for 92 million sq ft of warehouse space across the UK by 2024.
It’s therefore worth remembering that, every month in the UK, there are 43 warehouse fires. While mostly small, the average cost of a large warehouse fire is £5.9 million.
Part of the problem is that the latest regulatory guidance was written in 2006 when the design of warehouses was very different.
Nowadays, warehouses are likely to be larger, on several levels, and with automated machinery. More than anything, they’ll be packed with combustible materials.
Current guidance under the Fire Safety Building Regulations (FSBR) merely applies to any size of industrial building. But some warehouses can be several times the size of an average out-of-town DIY store.
Nor are they the “common building types” as defined by Building Regulations Approved Document B. Their size alone makes them anything but commonplace.
In terms of fire safety, what’s needed is a rethink on compartment sizes. To trap fire in one discrete area, and extinguish it with sprinklers.
Current fire regulations should ensure that evacuation takes place safely. But the sheer size of the internal compartments can make fire extremely expensive.
For example, in August 2020, fire completely destroyed a 7,300 square metre food distribution warehouse in Kent. It took over 100 firefighters to bring the blaze under control. It had no sprinkler system.
In contrast, in October 2020, fire broke out in another food distribution warehouse in Hastings. The fire, in the 9,000 square metre building, was quickly extinguished by a sprinkler system.
But fire safety in warehouses isn’t just about having active fire suppression measures, such as a sprinkler system, in place.
Commercial buildings need the protection of both active and passive fire systems, because fire is dynamic and can start anywhere.
That means assessing the vulnerability of every part of a building, not just the high-value parts of it, and having appropriate measures in place.
Those measures include the use of advanced glazing systems. In a warehouse, that could mean external protection to prevent fire spreading outwards and upwards.
Or it could mean fire protecting administrative areas so that valuable data isn’t lost. It’s worth remembering that in serious fires that destroy a company’s records, the majority cease trading within one year.
That’s why advanced glazing systems are so important because, while they can’t extinguish a fire, they can contain it, and prevent it spreading. That can be vital to business continuity.
In the new economy, with rising online sales, and a growing requirement for warehousing, fire safety has never been so important.