Three and a half centuries ago, during the wee hours of a dry hot day in September 1666, a small fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane in London.
Attempts to extinguish it failed. The fire devoured the timber building, leaping over narrow streets, fanned by the strong wind, sweeping rapidly west across the City of London like a bushfire. In this case, however, the fire was not destroying trees and undergrowth, but a city overcrowded with timber houses. The authorities threw all they had into containing the expanding inferno, to no avail; the fire raged for three days and consumed 13,200 houses. The death toll remains unknown but more than four-fifths of London was destroyed. This tragic conflagration is now known as the Great Fire of London.
King Charles II, who had joined and directed the fire-fighting effort declared afterwards, “Our express will and pleasure, that no man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building, great or small, but of brick or stone, and if any man shall do the contrary, the next Magistrate shall forthwith cause it to be pulled down.”
So there we have it - this declaration is what we now call the requirement for non-combustible construction.
The roots of our Australian building regulations can be traced back to the legacy of the Great Fire. The technical requirements for our building design are contained in the Building Code of Australia (BCA) and two-thirds of it deals with fire safety. For buildings required to be the most fire resistant, particularly high-rises, the external walls must be non-combustible.
After the Great Fire, London was rebuilt with brick and stone and there was no repeat of another conflagration. King Charles’ dogmatic approach worked.
As time goes by, the houses of brick and stone are gone. In cities all over the world, buildings towering up in concrete and steel skeletons, clad in glittering skins of glass and other modern materials. The growth fuelled by the energy from petroleum products that burn so well in combustion engines. Its byproducts are turned into hydrocarbon polymers, or what we simply call plastics, which permeate into every part of our lives, including the skins of the buildings we live in.
King Charles had learned from the Great Fire that timber burns, whereas brick and stone do not. But he would never have imagined that the byproducts of a fuel that burns many better than timber would be used, or that the overcrowded city he saw would be sardine-packed with multitudes of dwellings stacked on top of another.
In those days, fire spread sideways, from house to house, leading King Charles to decree that “…all other eminent and notorious Streets, shall be of such a breadth, as may with God’s blessing prevent the mischief that one side may suffer if the other be on fire.”
Now the issue of fire spread is also upwards which is multiple times faster than sideways.
In 1999, a fire started on the fifth floor of 14-storey Garnock Court in Scotland and spread rapidly up the combustible external cladding. Other incidents popped up around the world. In 2007, Water Club Tower in Atlantic City, USA; 2010, Wooshin Golden Suites in South Korea; 2012, Mermoz Tower in France, Al Tayer Tower in Sharjah, Saif Belhasa Building and Tamweel Tower in Dubai; and the list goes on.
In Australia, these occurrences appeared remote and fictional until November 2014 in Melbourne, when a balcony fire climbed straight up the exterior of Lacrosse Apartment. Suddenly, virtual became actual and everyone began to ask equivocally, “what must we do now?”
Should we ban the use of combustible external walls? Well, the BCA already forbids their use in tall buildings and not much more can added to it.
What about the existing 170 plus high-rise buildings identified in Melbourne and probably more in other cities that are clad in similar materials? Should we follow the commands of King Charles: “and if any man shall do the contrary, the next Magistrate shall forthwith cause it to be pulled down?” This would be fraught with insurmountable difficulties to untangle the inextricable knots of legal, social, economic issues.
What about future buildings?
Modern materials will continue to be developed and used in building construction. A logical and pragmatic approach would be to adopt an engineering and scientific approach to allow the appropriate materials that limit fire spread to be used. To do so, the materials must be suitably tested and demonstrated appropriate for their applications. Other fire safety systems in the buildings must also be taken into account.
In the wake of the 1999 apartment fire in Scotland, the British Government developed a method for fire testing cladding materials and outlined it in British Standard 8414. In Australia, development is underway to finalise Australia Standard 5113, which incorporates the British Standard and other test procedures. It will arguably be the most stringent test of its kind in the world and will offer the missing piece of jigsaw puzzle to the questions of what we can use for cladding our buildings and how we may further protect the cladding using other fire safety systems.
Three and a half centuries ago, King Charles did not have modern science and technology at his disposal. He had no choice but to adopt a dogmatic approach to stop fire spread. We, however, are in a fortunate position where we have the means to design buildings based on engineering and scientific principles taking all fire safety systems into account. This is the quintessence of fire safety engineering which is an engineering discipline that specialised to ensure fire safety of buildings.
What’s done cannot be fully undone. However, we must not take a myopic attitude for the way ahead. Our clear choice is to adopt a pragmatic approach in this modern society to build our cities using engineering principles to achieve fire safety in the buildings we live in, and stop fire spreading up, up and away.