A call for a holistic approach toward fire safety in building design across Australia has been ignited at a major industry conference.

Conducted in Brisbane over a three-day period spanning July 26-28, the SFS and SFPE Joint International Conference on Holistic Fire Safety Design highlighted the need for a new approach that will transform fire safety design throughout the nation.

For too long, approaches regarding fire safety design in buildings have been fragmented.

Too often, fire safety engineers are only engaged in cases where performance solutions have been adopted as part of building design and approval. Where this happens, there is no fire safety engineering input into design of buildings which are constructed entirely using deemed-to-satisfy (DTS) solutions.

Even where performance solutions are used, these are often selected by architects, building surveyors and others who do not have specialist knowledge of how buildings and people behave in a real fire.

Where fire safety engineers are engaged, many in the past have been contracted only to look at selected areas of the design and at a limited number of fire safety measures. This approach simply assumes that NCC Performance Requirements are satisfied through DTS provisions. It fails to enable the fire safety engineer to examine the whole package of works or to assess the overall safety of the building.

Finally, across many jurisdictions, fire safety engineers are either not encouraged or not engaged to undertake any site inspections, participate in commissioning of fire protection systems or provide useful documentation for building owners at handover.

As a result of all this, fire safety engineers have not been empowered to consider the breadth of fire safety measures in a holistic way.

The upshot is a siloed approach that is lacking in quality assurance, suffers from internal inconsistency, is not integrated with overall building design and does not produce satisfactory outcomes.

This is exactly the concern that Building Commissioner David Chandler has expressed when looking at the number of building defects in NSW. A significant number of these are related to fire protection.

This is not best practice. A new approach is needed.


Holistic Design for Fire Safety

What is holistic design for fire safety?

At the aforementioned conference hosted by the International Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) and the Engineers Australia Society of Fire Safety (SFS), this was defined as follows:

  “The development of an overall fire safety strategy and integrated design of fire safety measures for buildings, commencing in concept design and continuing through to inspection and commissioning and assisting the preparation of the Owner’s Manual, and addressing all NCC Performance Requirements with the mix of Performance Solutions and DTS Solutions considered best for the building design and future operations.”

As can be seen from this definition, holistic design is a top-down process in which the fire engineering is not subordinate to the building code. It is a proactive, design-oriented process which is driven by a professional fire safety engineer from early in design concept through to commissioning, completion and handover.

The output is a fire safety strategy. This considers all of the fire safety related performance related requirements of the National Construction Code in a holistic manner.

Again, at the Brisbane conference, this was defined as follows:

The fire safety strategy is an ensemble of features that ensures the satisfactory performance of fire in a building and which contribute to egress, compartmentation, active and passive protection, fire service intervention, structural stability. The fire safety strategy serves to control, guide or enable the evolution of a fire inside of a building, the response of the building to a fire, the response of the building occupants, and first responders to exercise their duties and responsibilities.”

Some might question whether this is a radical new process which may potentially lack a sound basis in good engineering or design and may potentially fail to deliver meaningful benefits for either the industry or its consumers.

This is NOT the case.

As outlined at the Brisbane conference, the need for holistic fire safety design has been highlighted both internationally and in Australia for several decades.

For example:

  • In 1980, Professor David Rasbash from the University of Edinburgh saw the emerging holistic approach when he wrote, “there has been a strong move towards the quantification of safety, and methods are now being developed for assessing and defining fire safety as a systemic whole.”
  • The Stardust nightclub fire in Dublin in 1981 caused 48 deaths and 214 people were injured. The 1982 Inquiry Report on the fire said “There is still clearly a need for a new approach …. which will in time bring to an end the attitude of mind, too prevalent at the moment, that compliance with fire safety requirements is something that can be dealt with outside the context of the overall design of the building.”
  • Dame Judith Hackitt in her 2018 “Building a Safer Future” report, following the Grenfell Building fire in the UK where 72 people died, wrote “We must also begin thinking about buildings as a system so that we can consider the different layers of protection that may be required to make that building safe on a case-by-case basis.” She added “… the siloed thinking … is part of the problem we must address”, and it “requires people who are part of the system to be competent, to think for themselves rather than blindly following guidance.”
  • The 2017-2021 Warren Centre project entitled “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering” involved some 60-70 representatives from a broad spectrum of the fire safety and building industry made strong recommendations for adoption of the holistic approach to fire safety design by all jurisdictions across Australia.
  • The Construct NSW report on “Improving Fire Safety’’ led by Michael Lambert and involving broad multidisciplinary input from industry supported the move towards holistic design, saying “future approaches to regulation should seek to establish a more holistic approach “to ensure there is a single point of responsibility for the integrity of the entire fire safety system within buildings (i.e. active systems, passive systems, fire prevention measures, the fire management strategy and so on.

Furthermore, the holistic design process has being practised in New Zealand, Ireland, Germany and many other countries for a good number of years.

It is international best practice.

Back home, the concept is being supported by new building regulations for Class 2 and now Classes 3 and 9c buildings in NSW.

These regulations have supported the need for fire safety engineers to have input into building design, be involved in inspection and commissioning and help to write the fire safety section of the building manual for owners.

Bottom line, the way forward is a holistic, systems approach that is founded on good engineering design and led by competent engineering professionals as the design process for fire safety.

Piecemeal assessments of a few isolated fire safety measures or design solutions should be a thing of the past.


Benefits of Holistic Design

Already, many clients in Australia are embracing holistic design.

Benefits include:

  • Fire safety design which is seamless and harmonised with the broader building design.
  • Addressing all of the client’s fire safety objectives – including but not limited to NCC compliance requirements.
  • Avoidance of the silos and lack of integration which are often evident in construction practice.
  • Designs which are optimized and cost-effective as a result of early intervention of fire safety engineers.
  • Avoiding construction errors and rework by helping to get things right from the start of the project.
  • Putting the best information in the hands of the owners, managers and occupants through the Owners Handbook.

The holistic approach is a true engineering approach that sees important fire safety design decisions placed in the hands of the fire safety engineers as the relevant design professionals. This makes them accountable and responsible for fire safety design. Above all, it delivers better quality and safety for owners, managers and occupants.

We see this in many projects already where professional fire safety engineers, skilled in creative, holistic fire safety design, work with architects, developers, builders and others to realize better building outcomes. Such an approach was illustrated by speakers at the Brisbane conference. This included excellent presentations on the Walsh Bay Wharf Precinct redevelopment, a waste recycling plant and other buildings. These case studies demonstrated how the creative flexibility of fire safety engineering could address all the challenges of fire safety design.



Holistic design is the way forward for building fire safety in Australia. It is widely practised internationally. It is already practised around Australia with enlightened clients and design teams. It is being recognised in some regulations, such as in NSW, and by authorities such as the Australian Building Codes Board. The evidence to support it is strong. And the benefits are clear.

Everyone in the building and construction industry should embrace early involvement of fire safety engineers in projects and holistic design for better quality and safety.

Talk to your local fire safety engineers about the process and the benefits.

Doing this will transform your building design and help to avoid serious defects.



Peter Johnson, Fellow – Fire Safety Engineering at Arup

Dr David Lange, Associate Professor of Structural Engineering at University of Queensland