National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Richard Walls

For conducting research and education to improve informal settlement fire safety as well as structural fire design – both crucial to ensuring safety in our communities.


Prize sponsor: proSET (Professionals in Science, Engineering and Technology), a sector of the NSTF representing professional bodies and learned societies.

The 2019/2020 NSTF-South32 for TW Kambule-NSTF Award Emerging Researcher was won by Prof Richard Walls established the Fire Engineering Research Unit (FireSUN) at Stellenbosch University, where he is an associate professor. His research aims is to develop fire safety engineering education while pursuing methods to improve informal settlement fire safety and structural fire design.

After receiving his doctorate four years ago, Dr Richard Walls established the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University (FireSUN). This is a dynamic research group seeking to develop fire safety engineering education while pursuing methods to improve informal settlement fire safety and structural fire design.

Coming from a consulting structural engineering background, Walls became involved with structural fire engineering through a PhD thesis. The thesis focused on designing buildings to remain safe when a fire breaks out.

“I got into fire engineering by accident, but once I saw its potential to have an impact — along with the ability to burn things down in the name of science — I continued with the field,” Walls explains. He thinks his love of fire and fire safety also comes from spending time working on the streets of inner-city Johannesburg with the homeless, through a project called Paballo Ya Batho. Plus, he taught Sunday School to children from a burn survivor home “where I saw what fires have done to many people”.

Responding to the dire shortage of fire safety experts in fire engineering internationally, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, FireSUN has launched a dedicated postgraduate degree programme in fire safety engineering. It’s the first of its kind on the African continent.

Walls has sought assistance from other universities to rapidly develop research expertise in various fire safety fields. He now guides students and post-doctoral students in studying topics such as the behaviour of 3D-printed concrete and Ecobricks, fire spread in informal settlements, and structural design for robustness during fires.

He works closely with local and provincial fire services to reduce informal settlement fire hazard, and has played a leading role in cross-disciplinary analyses of the 2017 Knysna Fire disaster. His ground-breaking work in understanding fire spread in informal and semi-formal communities resulted in a fire safety engineering guideline, which is nearing completion. He also contributed to the United Nations “Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction” which looks at how to mitigate the effect of disasters on society.

Walls has secured support from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation under the “Fire Engineering Education for Africa” grant. This allowed a formalised fire safety education programme to be established, and is now also assisting other African universities.

“Ultimately our biggest contribution to society will be producing engineers with the skills and knowledge to protect Africa from the devastating effects of fire, whether that be in mining, urban, wildland, industrial and informal settlement settings,” Walls says. “Hopefully, my ‘arsonist tendencies’ may rub off on many talented young individuals — and some older ones too — who can then have an impact in our industry.” — Kerry Haggard

To read the full Mail & Guardian supplement of articles about the work of all the 2020 Award Winners, click here.

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