Life expectancy at birth is one of the most widely used and internationally recognised indicators of population health.

An ageing population is an indicator of success and effectiveness within our society and healthcare systems. Better general health, advanced medical care, and increased access to education worldwide have led to us living longer and healthier lives.

In Australia, life expectancy has hit a record high, with newborn girls anticipated to live to 84.5 and boys to 80.4 years of age. These statistics have respectively increased from 83.9 and 78.5 a decade ago and 50.8 and 47.2 just over a century ago. Added to this, the current birth rate sits at the ‘replacement rate’, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that by 2064 more than 23 per cent of our population will be aged 65 or older.

Amid this increase in life expectancy, it is important to look at how the construction space can keep up with the ageing population when it comes to fire safety.

Fire safety: new products bring challenges for an ageing population

Never before has there been a time when standards and codes need to adequately address the changing needs of our society and when compliance to these codes has been so imperative. With a vast variety of construction materials available, it is important to question whether building materials and fire safety regulations accommodate for ageing Australians.

When it comes to fire safety, an ageing population creates its own set of challenges for both new and existing residential and commercial building stock. Our mobility levels, ability to self-evacuate, and competence to self-manage our own fire risk significantly minimises with age. That means not only our homes, but our offices, theatres, libraries, and shopping centres need to be sufficiently robust and fire-safe to enable timely evacuation for people who may move slower than what they once did. Structural robustness and a fume-free environment are necessary during a fire.

Industry is taking steps in the right direction – but is it enough?

In light of the elevated risks, a range of industry associations from the building and construction sector have formed the Construction Product Alliance. Ensuring that building and construction products are fit for purpose is at the heart of the Alliance’s goal, and this is certainly a step in the right direction in mitigating the risk of non-conforming products.

However, from a fire safety perspective, more is required than merely determining whether or not a product complies with Australian Standards and fire requirements. Designing structures to minimise fire risk with products that are fit for purpose is also important.

In that regard, the choice of materials for the structure – and whether that enables passive fire protection – in combination with the choice of active fire protection are both critical.

Fire protection: understanding the options

For optimum fire safety and to mitigate fire risk, a building should incorporate both passive and active fire protection.

In terms of passive fire protection, the aim is to prevent collapse through structural fire resistance. Key structural elements should not be combustible for the required period, nor should they emit fumes when exposed to fire. In this regard, a structure’s passive fire protection can save lives, assets, and the building itself, guarding essential structural components from the effects and the spread of fire.

However, passive fire protection measures are not always engaged, and even when they are there is still a need for a structure to include active fire protection. Active fire protection can be implemented through fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems. This though, has its own risks and comes with the potential for failure.

For example, the Barangaroo inferno that brought Sydney to a standstill in 2014 occurred during the construction phase of the project, when the active fire protection had not yet been commissioned. Even when commissioned, active fire protection has the potential to fail if not properly maintained, and it is therefore imperative to have an appropriate mix of fire protection. Where active fire protection works to extinguish a fire, passive fire prevention minimises risk to the structure and prevents the spread of fire.

Concrete doesn’t burn – it’s that simple. Unlike organic building materials, precast concrete is inherently fire resistant with zero flammability on both internal and external surfaces. Additionally, precast concrete is not required to be treated, coated, or covered in order to meet fire requirements. Unlike buildings constructed with less fire-resistant products, a precast structure does not need to rely alone on active fire protection systems for its structural integrity. Often designed as a key component of a building’s passive fire protection, a concrete structure will also assist with the prevention of collapse through structural fire resistance. The safety of inhabitants is therefore maximised. When correctly designed, a total precast structure requires no treatment of the actual structure to meet fire requirements. Specifying precast walls, floors, beams, columns, lift shafts and stairways brings a building leaps and bounds ahead when it comes to fire safety.

Not only can precast concrete play an important role in a structure’s passive fire protection, but because it is manufactured offsite it can further minimise fire risk during the construction phase. The ‘just in time’ delivery of precast products offers a faster method of construction and therefore the time that a structure’s active fire protection remains non-commissioned is minimised. With less activity on the site comes less chance of a fire.

Our ageing population deserves the best when it comes to safety and that means choice of materials and design are both critical. Clearly, precast concrete can save lives, assets, and even the building itself, by ensuring essential structural components perform as expected under the spread of fire.