Following the tragic fire at London’s Grenfell Apartments recently much has been made in the media about potential parallels with Australian high rise apartment buildings.
This has been particularly of note given the fire in 2014 in a Melbourne apartment building which involved the rapid spread of fire up the building due to the combustible cladding material in a part of the building’s facade.
In making comparisons, it is important to note the differences between the London government apartment building and newly constructed private apartments in Australia.
The Grenfell apartments were constructed in the 1970s. The British building regulations today will be significantly different to those that applied in 1970, and to those that apply in Australia today. For example, the UK only introduced mandatory sprinkler systems for this type of building in 2007.
The building underwent significant refurbishment in recent years, which included the installation of a new cladding system for the exterior of the building. However, without having a detailed understanding of the British building regulations, it is impossible to provide comment on whether the failure is due to a non-conforming product, or more likely the non-compliant use of the cladding, similar to the Melbourne fire incident. The media reports also state there may be some other issues at play with the fire safety systems in the London situation such as smoke detectors and internal stairs.
The Building Code of Australia (BCA) requires a building of this nature to be sprinkler protected and for other fire safety systems to be in place. The BCA also requires any cladding installed on high rise buildings to either be non-combustible or to demonstrate that it has the ability to resist the spread of fire. These requirements have been in place for many years.
Whilst media reports have referred to the product being non-conforming, meaning it did not comply with relevant standards when manufactured in the factory, the truth is most likely that the fault was the incorrect use of this product on the building, being non-compliant building work. Essentially people have failed to do the right thing either in the design or construction of the building work.
The Melbourne fire incident should be seen as evidence that the Building Code of Australia which required the building to include many other vital safety features was effective in saving lives and preventing the spread of that fire to other parts of the building. Residents were able to exit the building safely and the safety features generally worked at or above their design expectation.
In Australia state building regulations also require ongoing and regular maintenance and testing of fire safety essential services which includes annual checks in this type of building.
Following the Melbourne fire, a number of actions have been undertaken by the state governments and nationally through the Australian Building Codes Board and the Building Ministers to investigate building safety in Australia. This includes state based building audits in Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia and recently Building Ministers agreed to commission an expert to examine the broader compliance and enforcement problems with the building & construction systems affecting the implementation of the National Construction Code (NCC). This work is continuing and is likely the outcomes will address much of the debate that has resurfaced following the Grenfell Apartments fire.
HIA has been supportive of this work and will continue to keep members informed of any implications that these fires have for the construction of high rise apartments in Australia.
The Australian Building Codes Board has recently launched a website regarding non-conforming building products and HIA has a number of information sheets on building products and demonstrating a products fitness for purposes. These have been unlocked for the time being and can be accessed by members and non-members
If you have any further questions regarding these matters members should contact the HIA Building Services team on 1300 650 620.