The terrible Grenfell Building fire in the UK set in train a whole range of regulatory reforms which are expected to deliver much better quality and improved fire safety for building owners across Australia, especially in the residential sector.
The anticipation is that national policies and state and territory regulatory changes will lead to:
- Fire safety measures in buildings which are better integrated within a holistic and more effective design
- Fire protection systems being designed and harmonized with all other aspects of building design
- Improved life cycle costing so that lower cost construction options do not become higher cost maintenance items for owners
- Significantly reduced number of building defects through improved design practices, greater scrutiny by certifiers and tougher audit regimes by professional bodies and regulators
- The preparation of comprehensive building manuals for all buildings, but especially residential buildings, with special fire safety sections written with one part in a form suitable to be read and understood by non-technical building owners, body corporates and occupants.
In relation to fire safety design and the practice of fire safety engineering there are now numerous drivers for change that are bringing benefits to owners of property. At a national level, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) and their team which are developing the responses to the recommendations of the Shergold/Weir Building Confidence Report (BCR) have set out national policies and requirements for:
- Professional registration of fire safety engineers and fire system designers, prescribing minimum qualifications and experience for practice
- Third party peer reviews
- Inspection and certification of fire safety systems
- A Code of Conduct for fire safety engineers as well as one for certifiers.
- Building manuals for owners
In addition, ABCB have released the new Australian International Fire Engineering (AFEG) as the rigorous process that fire safety engineers should follow in preparing fire safety designs, as well as an excellent online CPD training course on fire safety and the NCC which is suitable for all building design practitioners. The NCC also now requires more extensive consultation with stakeholders on fire safety matters, including with the fire authorities, as a result of NCC amendment A2.2 (4) which came into effect on 1 July 2021 to ensure the quality of Performance Solutions, including for fire safety.
The Design and Building Practitioners (D&BP) Act and Regulations 2020 now implemented from 1 July this year is transforming the design and construction landscape in NSW. Registration of many different classes of designers, builders and certifiers, including fire safety engineers and fire systems designers, in now a mandatory requirement. This means only accredited practitioners with specified qualifications, knowledge and skills, at least 5 years of supervised professional experience, on-going CPD, and appropriate professional indemnity insurance can lead, manage and take responsibility for fire safety designs for Class 2 and Class 2 mixed use buildings in NSW. This is similar to the situation in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania, although other states and territories are dragging their heels.
Under the new D&BP Regulations in NSW, signed design declarations by registered fire safety practitioners are now required before Construction Certificates (CC) are issued, and there are responsibilities on builders to certify that constructed buildings meet all NCC requirements. This has really toughened up the process. This has been complemented by the Office of the NSW Building Commissioner (OBC)who has established audit teams who are already undertaking pre-Occupation Certificate (OC) audits to uncover defects before residential properties are completed and sales finalized by developers. Victoria and Queensland also have tougher inspection programs.
Audits of design declarations to ensure design teams get the designs and documentation right before building approvals are granted and construction commences will also start shortly in NSW. Media publicity of the OBC audit program and the resulting stop work and other actions have ensured developers, builders and design teams are very much aware that they need to lift their game, get designs done right first time before construction starts, and deliver the required level of building quality and safety.
What does this mean for fire safety engineers, system designers, and design practice??
It means that many fire safety professionals need to “raise the bar” and look to “the big picture” of overall fire safety rather than bury themselves in modelling and analysis of a restricted number of Performance Solutions. These Performance Solutions are often limited to extending travel distances to exits, finding ways to eliminate sprinklers and hosereels, and reducing the fire resistance of structural elements or fire doors, all aimed at simply lowering the costs of construction.
The new ABCB Code of Practice for fire safety engineers, the ABCB fire safety CPD course, the Fire Safety Verification Method, AFEG and legal precedents are all pointing to the need for a holistic approach to design of fire safety in buildings. This means fire safety engineers looking at all aspects of fire safety covered by the NCC Performance Requirements. It also means getting started on fire safety design early in concept design, checking design documentation, and following through with site inspections and witnessing of commissioning to make sure the fire safety strategy and package of fire protection measures that was developed in the design phase is fully delivered before the occupancy certificate is signed off by the certifier.
This means developers, builders and project/construction managers are going to have to come to grips with this new regime and extended scope of fire safety professionals’ work on projects and the necessary budgets, driven by the new regulations and mandatory code of practice requirements. They will need to commission registered fire safety engineers and system designers earlier, allow for greater stakeholder engagement processes, provide for greater involvement in inspections and commissioning, and the writing of owner’s manuals.
What is in it for the building owners and occupiers??
As the real beneficiaries from these very significant changes, owners, occupiers, body corporates and others can expect to see:
- a much more seamless approach to fire safety design with improved outcomes based on improved fire safety designs harmonized with all other aspects of building design
- no more big surprises like the combustible cladding crisis
- fire safety designs which get it right first time and lead to more cost-effective construction with far fewer defects post the final certification
- designs which address not only the NCC life safety objective but also consider property protection and asset value
- consideration of life cycle matters so as not to reduce construction costs at the expense of long-term owner charges for maintenance and early replacement of fire protection systems
- building manuals with detailed fire safety provisions to make building operation and maintenance far easier for owners to understand and manage
- a better understanding by insurers of the fire risks and fire safety measures which can only help to owners get more competitive property insurance.
Sadly, it took the Grenfell building fire, following the Lacrosse and Neo200 fires as well as the structural failures in NSW and elsewhere, to cause governments and the design and construction industry in Australia to lift their game in terms of building quality and safety. However, we are seeing significant regulatory reform and changes in professional practice which should deliver much improved outcomes for building owners and occupiers in terms of fire safety and overall building quality.