Reporting on FCL19



We held our first ever “Designing fire-safe informal settlement” workshop as part of the Festival of Creative Learning at University of Edinburgh. Participants were divided into three groups and tasked with designing an informal settlement from prefabricated steel and cardboard dwellings which would result in the least number of dwellings being destroyed in event of a fire. 

The 13 participants were first introduced to informal settlement fires and the mechanisms of fire spread.


They were then divided into three groups and given the materials for their task:

  • 30 single cardboard dwellings,
  • 14 single steel dwellings,
  • 16 double steel dwellings,
  • 16 L-Shaped triple steel dwellings and
  • the surface area into which they had to arrange the dwellings.

It was really interesting to see the different design strategy taken by the groups and also to observe varying collaboration styles. 

Group 1 appeared to divide the settlement into four blocks with each participant designing their own block, with a wide fire break separating the blocks. 

Group 2 argued rather vociferously throughout the design process, favouring a focus on evacuation rather than protecting property. 

Group 3 took a more community focussed approach with the settlement being divided into blocks which would accommodate, for example, extended family with each block separated with a fire break to allow emergency vehicle access. 

With 3 quite different settlements designed, we headed off to the fire lab to see how the settlements performed in fire. This is what we observed. 

Group 1: the use of space to create fire breaks meant that dwellings were clustered in the four blocks with very little separation distance. The fire breaks were not adequate to prevent fire spreading between blocks, and only one dwelling was unburned.

Group 2: taking an evacuation approach meant that individual dwellings were relatively well separated from their neighbours. This meant that the fire did not develop as fully as it did for group 1 and although there was spread, the fire circled its way around the settlement until finally burning out leaving approximately 12 dwellings untouched. 

Group 3: the fire burned in a similar manner to Group 1’s settlement with the fire developing into a large intense fire rather quickly due to dense clustering of dwellings. The fire breaks were inadequate to prevent spread between blocks and approximately four dwellings were not burned.


Here is a clip of the video showing fire spread.

We think it was an interesting workshop and we hope we have raised awareness of the challenge of fire in informal settlements. General thanks to the IRIS fire project for the support and of course the Festival of Creative Learning for funding and promoting the event. Specific thanks to everybody who helped: Antonio Cicione, Yu Wang, Mohamed Beshir, Mark Partington, Rory Hadden, David Rush and, last but not least, my children who constructed the cardboard dwellings during their school holidays.



Lesley Gibson