The Shergold/Weir inquiry and resultant “Building Confidence Report” have shown us that the building and construction industry must be transformed to significantly improve the quality and safety of buildings across Australia, especially in residential construction
This was reinforced in the recent article by Bruce Cohen entitled “Why Are Multi-Storey Complexes Still Being Built Poorly?” His wide experience comes from working for both builders and consumers, and from seeing the pressures which come on all parties, including sub-contractors, when working on least-cost projects. The inevitable result has been that the costs of defective work have often been passed on to consumers through the life of the completed building.
This transfer of cost from design and construction to consumers is the point also made by NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler. It is why he is seeing his audits prior to issuance of occupancy certificates as critical to ensuring buildings comply with the required codes and standards, and defects are fixed before properties are passed on to owners and tenants.
Not all building projects have significant numbers of defects. Many buildings exhibit great functionality and aesthetics, incorporate a range of innovative materials and design features, and deliver the quality, safety and amenity envisaged in the National Construction Code. Excellence in fire safety engineering and design have often been a feature of these great building outcomes.
However, in the area of fire safety design we have seen too many examples of:
- Issues with external wall construction and cladding
- Design of complex smoke control systems which are very difficult to maintain in service
- Large numbers of open penetrations in fire rated construction
- Poor fire protection of critical structural elements
- Inadequate fire safety inspection processes and lack of proper fire systems commissioning
Why has this happened, or been allowed to happen?
The leaders of the fire safety engineering profession had a fair idea of the problems, but sought to gather the evidence by developing and participating in the Warren Centre project at the University of Sydney entitled “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering”.
Some of the key findings included:
- Evidence by Meacham that some 50% of so called “fire safety engineering” was being undertaken by unqualified practitioners
- Often no holistic fire safety strategy for a building, but rather adhoc “Performance Solutions” develop by certifiers and other non-fire safety engineers
- Frequently no consistent requirement for professional accreditation and registration of fire safety engineers needed to practice across Australia
- An almost total lack of audit and enforcement of projects and professional practice by regulators.
The Shergold/Weir findings, while much broader than just fire safety engineering, found similar serious deficiencies in the whole regulatory landscape and in many building design and construction practices. They made key recommendations for reform which are entirely consistent with the Warren Centre project recommendations for fire safety engineering.
What is extremely pleasing to fire safety professionals is to see the majority of states and territories taking action to reform building regulations, and in a manner very largely consistent with the national consultation papers promulgated by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB). For example, the new draft Design and Building Practitioners Regulations 2020 in NSW are highlighting:
- An important role for fire safety engineers and for fire systems design practitioners
- The holistic approach to developing fire safety strategies for buildings (at least initially Class 2 buildings and associated mixed use)
- The importance of inspections and commissioning, and practitioner declarations on NCC compliance at the design stage and prior to issuance of the occupancy certificate
- A role for fire safety engineers in preparing a fire safety manual that simply explains to owners and tenants the fire safety strategy, the key fire safety measures and the way the building need to be managed and maintained through its lifetime
- The requirements for fire safety engineering work to be only undertaken by professionally competent and registered fire safety engineers.
Some other states and territories such as Victoria and Western Australia are following similar requirements in Queensland and NSW to set clear roles for fire safety engineers, require their registration, and only allow them to undertaken professional fire safety engineering work.
This means now and into the future that building developers, architects, project managers and builders can expect to find that:
- They need to engage professional fire safety engineers early in projects at the concept stage and have them involved throughout the building design and construction process to handover in holistic fire safety design.
- They will require fire safety engineers who are pro-active creative professionals to help them set the overall fire safety strategy, key fire safety measures and address all NCC Performance Requirements related to fire safety
- The fire safety engineers they hire will need to have not only good early stage design skills and sound knowledge of the NCC, but also be experienced in on-site inspections and commissioning and be able to confirm that buildings meet the NCC fire safety requirements.
- The scope, and the resultant costs, of fire safety engineering consultancy work will need to increase to meet the new requirements. However, the benefits will be to get the fire safety strategy right first time, enable more cost-effective designs, assist in complex commissioning of integrated systems, avoid costly construction errors, give greater certainty to developers and final owners, and reduce through-life costs to consumers.
For fire safety engineers, they will have to make sure they meet professional registration requirements of the regulations in all states and territories in which they practice. In general, this will be though Engineers Australia and the National Engineers Register (NER) in the category of fire safety engineering, or potentially through IFE registration. They will need to meet new competency requirements, including design skills and on-site skills in inspection and commissioning, and the preparation of owner’s manuals or fire safety handbooks. They will need to meet the strict Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements. Likewise, fire safety system design practitioners who design sprinkler, fire detection and alarm and other systems, will also have to registered through schemes such as the FPAS Scheme developed by the Fire Protection Association, Australia.
The ultimate beneficiaries of this major regulatory reform agenda and the “step up” in terms of professional practice by fire safety engineers and others will be the owners, managers and tenants of all buildings. They will see better quality buildings and fit outs, increased safety, clearer directions on fire safety management and maintenance of essential services, and reduced longer term rates of defects.
Many fire safety engineers have been well qualified and registered by Engineers Australia and/or IFE for a good number of years, and practising at a high standard. However, the challenges inherent in the new regulations will require significant “raising of the bar” for many fire safety practitioners now and into the future to meet the expected professional standards. Education and training is the key, and investment is required for new or expanded courses in fire safety engineering at the right academic level to deliver the new graduates of the future.
The future is bringing new challenges and risks that fire safety engineers will have to face and become skilled in that include:
- The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that are now been called upon by clients as requirements to be met for selected projects, including aspects of resilience and sustainable design
- The challenges associated with climate change, with more severe weather conditions, growing risks of wildfires in semi-urban areas as well as rural areas, and impacts not only on buildings but also on community infrastructure such as energy systems and telecommunications will demand comprehensive fire risk management plans
- Greater use of newer building materials, such as timber and organic materials, and fuels such as hydrogen are bringing new hazards
- The competing challenges of fire safety and security, given increasing internal and external terrorism and other threats, will need to be critically evaluated
- The life safety risks associated with ever taller buildings, and greater development of underground spaces and tunnels will require specialized fire safety design.
The future for fire safety engineering is exciting as it aims to achieve full professional status and become a fully formed professional career opportunity for engineers young and older alike. Regulatory reform on the back of the “Building Confidence Report” and the Warren Centre research is creating significant opportunities for those willing to gain new knowledge and skills in fire safety. But the most significant benefits should come to building owners and consumers through higher quality buildings and infrastructure, and greater public safety.
Peter Johnson is a Principal and Fellow in fire safety engineering at the global consulting firm of Arup and a research leader for the Warren Centre project on “Professionalising Fire Safety Engineering”.
Dr David Lange joined the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Queensland in early 2018 as a lecturer in Structural Fire Engineering. His background is in Structural Fire Safety Engineering, including risk and performance based design methodoloiges and structural mechanics under high temperature. He has several years of experience working in the research and education sector in Europe, where he has participated in a wide range of projects including coordination of a Horizon 2020 research and innovation action and as principal or co-investigator in a variety of nationally and internationally funded projects in the field of fire safety engineering.