Quite some time ago, I was called to a crisis meeting where a retail tenancy was refused occupancy permit in the eleventh hour of its scheduled opening.
The culprit was some timber lining on a small section of the interior wall.
I arrived and wandered amongst the timber forest of furniture and fittings. A long timber shelf meandered graciously in subtle curves and merged effortlessly into a section of the interior wall in question. It was a beautiful fit-out that mimicked a patch of an enchanted forest. It could metaphorically be a rainforest if the fire sprinklers activated.
The building surveyor fingered the curve section and declared, “to the left of this joint, the timber is attached to the wall. It’s a lining and doesn’t comply. It has to go.”
Fluently, he recited some clauses and sub-clauses from the Building Code of Australia.
“To the right, the timber is detached from the wall. It’s part of the furniture and is acceptable. It may stay.”
The architect was infuriated by the explanation and more so by its exactness. “This is madness," he said. "The timber probably came from the same tree! How could one side be acceptable and the other not? We’re not going to dismantle anything!”
I looked at the grains of the two pieces of timber at the joint. Yes, he was right. They did come from the same tree like a pair of identical twins, except one had been blessed and the other, along with its neighbours that reside on the wrong side of a street, has been condemned for eviction.
The argument went on. Both sides were correct in their own right, and yet their logic kept colliding at the thin line where the twin pieces of timber joined tongue in groove.
But this is how certification works. It’s about compliance to the letter of the Building Code. Every box must be ticked. The timber was given a cross.
My memory was swept further back in time to my university days. The warm timber surround was now cold sandstone walls and the law professor stood and explaining types of laws and their applications to engineering. He recounted controversial cases where engineers were found guilty in incidents for their actions or inactions. Most, admittedly, appeared unjust.
“These are wrong! Where is the justice?” a fellow engineering student protested emphatically, echoing the sentiment of the class.
The professor swooped around, looking at us and said, “listen, and listen carefully. This class is about the law. It’s all about what is written in the law, not about what you believe justice is. Look at the symbol of our legal systems. It’s a lady carrying a scale and wearing a blindfold to judge objectively and impartially. The law is blind.”
This brutal fact stirred a strange mixed feeling of enlightenment, disgust, anger and helplessness. It must be how the architect felt against the blindfold that shielded the building surveyor from seeing the wood for the trees - and in this instance, almost literally.
This case is all too common and many other stories can be told. All in all, compliance guarantees an approval, but it does not guarantee a logical solution.
Prescriptive approach, or what we earlier referred to as compliance, is as deeply enshrined in our Building Code as the grains in the timber. Over time, the code grew like a tree with requirements added as growth rings, which exist in parallel and never cross. Each box is to be ticked for an overall compliance. No consideration of overall performance or interplay of building systems is required. It’s easy until difficulties arise.
In 1996, an alternative approach was introduced in the Building Code to allow formulation of solutions that achieve its performance - as opposed to its prescriptive - requirements. This gave rise to performance solutions which are free from the blindfold imposed on their prescriptive counterparts.
While a prescriptive approach relies on a literal interpretation of the letter of the code, a performance approach relies on scientific and engineering principles to achieve the code’s objectives, taking into account all relevant factors associated with the solutions.
Formulation of fire safety performance solutions is the role of fire safety engineers. It’s not only free from the blindfold, it necessarily demands transparency and the designer is asked to view each situation scientifically, taking into account other systems. It allows logic to prevail.
Performance approach was applied to the retail tenancy mentioned at the outset of this article. The layout, the protection of sprinklers and other systems in the building and was reviewed. The timber lining was found to have little impact on the fire safety of the tenancy. The condemned twin timber and its neighbours were spared from eviction. The shop was granted a permit and opened at its scheduled time.
Since the introduction of the performance approach, many building projects in Australia have reaped significant benefits. An independent study by the Centre of International Economics in 2012 revealed that Australia has enjoyed an overall productivity gain of $1.1 billion a year, and another $1 billion gain could further be derived from it. Consequently, the Government has embarked on a concerted push for greater adoption of performance solutions. Fire safety engineering has been the forerunner of this approach. Other areas including energy efficiency, hydraulic, structural reliability, vertical transportation, lighting should follow suit next. This opens up many new and exciting possibilities for many areas of building design.
Performance versus prescriptive - the choice is yours. But remember, compliance is blind. Your building solutions needn’t be.