Amid the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower and the earlier debacle at the Lacrosse apartment towers in Melbourne in 2014, dangers associated with fire in high-rise buildings have been the subject of considerable attention.
Less attention has been given to lower rise stock of five, six or eight storeys.
Yet beyond the headlines, considerable dangers lurk in this area. Under the National Construction Code, buildings of less than 25 metres in effective height are not required to have sprinkler protection. Sources have also told Sourceable that use of cladding containing the combustible polyethylene was rife on lower rise buildings – far more so compared with their higher-rise counterparts.
Such dangers were underscored in 2012, when 21-year-old student Connie Zhang died after jumping five storeys from a window ledge after becoming entrapped by a fire in her Bankstown apartment. That tower, a coroner’s investigation later found, should have had sprinkler protection and had been the subject of years of inept management in respect of fire safety.
Scott Williams, chief executive officer of the Fire Protection Association of Australia, says dangers associated with low-rise multi-residential building should not be underestimated.
Without sprinklers, Williams said, these buildings are reliant upon fire separation between floors and apartments as well as fire doors, extinguishers, hose reels, fire rated stairwells and emergency lighting all working as they should. Add to that risks associated with combustible cladding and passive fire protection not being used or installed correctly, and Williams says the danger is significant.
“The most vulnerable building in Australia is a building that is just under 25 metres in effective height which is called Class 2 residential,” Williams said.
“What we would say is that that type of building (Class 2 residential) that hasn’t got sprinklers…there is the possibility here that if you introduce into that potentially non-compliant building materials where the side of the building hasn’t been built correctly that is cladding or if the fire separating from a passive perspective is not right, we have a very vulnerable building that is of significant risk.”
In addition, Williams says concerns about apartment buildings are being exacerbated by other factors.
Courtesy of the prevalence of plastics and chemicals in modern furniture and appliances, the point of flashover where the apartment becomes engulfed in fire is now three to four minutes, he says. This is problematic for two reasons.
First, current NCC rules in respect of the 25 metres in effective height were predicated on longer flashover time frames where people’s couches were filled with leather couches, timber televisions and woollen rugs. Second, with denser cities, growing road congestion and an increasing number of buildings needing to be accessed via narrow laneways with limited parking, fire departments face greater obstacles in getting to fires and obtaining access to the site.
Beyond this, Williams says an additional area of risk with low-rise buildings stems from the nature of the apartment building market. Whereas the top tier developers and builders such as Grocon or Lend Lease focus predominately on higher-rise stock, the lower rise segment of the market is more fragmented and can involve hundreds of different developers and builders. Whilst he acknowledges that many second-tier builders produce good work, Williams says the number of builders at this scale opens the door for less scrupulous players.
As for the cladding itself, Williams says it is difficult to know with any certainty that material polyethylene was more prevalent on lower rise buildings. Nevertheless, he says this is likely to be the case especially given the number of smaller builders operating in this sector and the massive number of buildings going up in this end of the market.
“Obviously, at the bigger end of town maybe some of the buildings are a bit better,” Williams said.
“I’m not saying that it’s good (at the top end of town) and I think it’s fair to say that it (combustible cladding) exists in those areas (above 25 metres). But because of the amount of buildings and the number of builders, pro-rata, it’s probably going more readily in buildings of under 25 metres.”
Williams is not alone in his concerns about low-rise building. Other sources suggest low-rise buildings have not been intentionally overlooked but that significant dangers may lurk in these buildings as regulators focus initially on high-rise in CBD locations.
In Victoria, for instance, an audit on cladding conducted by the Victoria Building Authority in respect of 170 building permits focused primarily on high-rise buildings in the CBD. The audit did not cover, for example, a Brunswick apartment block where a faulty air-conditioning unit sparked a blaze which spread quickly through the cladding to the unit above. Fortunately, in that case, damage was limited as the building was sprinkler protected despite being less than 25 metres in effective height.
Williams says problems are also evident in broader areas in respect of fire safety. Citing the findings of the Victoria Building Authority audit that cladding on one in every two high-rise buildings was non-compliant, he says there has been a systemic failure of enforcement of fire safety regulations. Beyond construction, expenditure on fire safety within the maintenance phase of buildings is a ‘grudge spend’ at best - ideas about putting in extra sprinklers, hose reels or additional staircases are foreign to many. The NCC has also not kept pace with the change in apartments in terms of the number of occupants in buildings and the number of combustible items in buildings, he says.
Going forward, Williams said action was needed in several areas. In the next update of the NCC, the mandatory requirement for sprinklers should be extended to include buildings of less than 25 metres in effective height. He noted that a a hybrid system working off the mains water rather than by special pumps and tanks would be adequate and could allow for some offsets such as the removals of some hose reels. By having this, he said, you would control the spread of fire and maintain the tenability within the apartments long enough to enable the fire department to respond.
There also needs to be a greater understanding of the roles and responsibilities throughout the construction process with suitably qualified practitioners at every level. Finally, better enforcement is necessary as are clear penalties and consequences where requirements are not met.
“The big thing in the industry is that we need consequences for those who do the wrong thing,” Williams said. “If they (practitioners) don’t embrace a culture of quality, if they don’t embrace a culture of compliance, then there is no room for them in the industry and there must be strong laws and regulation that reflect this.
“If an accountant does the wrong thing and commits and injustice to his or her profession, he or she will be held accountable and will be removed from his or her ability to practice.
“We’ve got to get to the position in this industry where there is somebody out there who are the enforcers and who are saying ‘if you do the wrong thing, you will not work in this industry’, and those individuals must be removed.”