It took 165 minutes for the high-rise building to burn in the epic 1974 Steve McQueen movie “The Towering Inferno.”
However, these days, in one instance in Victoria, a 21-storey building with aluminium clad panels became engulfed in flames from the 8th to 21st storeys in approximately 15 minutes.
This calls into question the fire rating of high-rise aluminium panel cladding from both a material aspect and a fixing aspect. Fire safety engineers should, to put it mildly, be greatly concerned with this deeply troubling outcome, and moreover the prospect that this situation may be present on a multitude of buildings across Australia and the world.
Developers of large buildings are striving to obtain the cheapest tender from a builder to build a skyscraper. Builders in turn are seeking to reduce the cost of construction, and registered building surveyors and engineers may receive inadequate or incorrect information about material specifications, or they may otherwise not have investigated or tested the regulatory adequacy of building materials or the full methodology of the cladding methodology proposed by an alternative solution to achieve the required fire rating outcome. The engineering methodology can also be used to form CodeMark certification to help with the shortcomings of the ACC.
So in a nutshell, there are many factors which may contribute to this outcome, but suffice it to say it is an alarming situation where the regulatory regime of product certification could well do with close examination and overhaul.
There is no cladding material that can truly be said to be fireproof. Clause 1.12 of the Australian Construction Code (ACC) specifies the performance requirements for a ‘non-combustable’ material. In that regard, materials are tested pursuant to AS1530.1. However, it is fair to say that AS1530.1 was not intended for bonded laminates such as the typical aluminium cladding panels that are affixed to high-rise buildings.
Almost all aluminum panels contain glue which is combustible, and also may contain air pockets within the panel that houses oxygen. Glue and oxygen burn very well.
The AS1530.1 test called up by Clause 1.12 of the ACC is not world's best practice and falls well short of EN13501-1, which is adopted by many European Countries and the US. This test procedure shows the performance of the product as it would be supplied, not the individual components that AS1530.1 and C1.12f allow for.
An amendment of the ACC to incorporate EN13501-1 is a highly recommended step to bring Australian fire safety standards up to worlds best practice.
The building official issuing a building an occupancy permit must take responsibility for ensuring on a project-by-project basis that the appropriate fire rating is achieved by not only the materials used in aluminum cladding but also by the way such materials are affixed to the building mechanically (as opposed to being glued or taped) and that the facade of the building is otherwise considered as a whole in terms of fire rating resilience.
Sprinklers are designed for internal usage and are not typically fitted to balconies. Additionally, fire brigade ladders are limited and cannot reach high rise levels on high-rise buildings. Vertical fire separation of high-rise aluminium cladded buildings is essential.
However, we are only talking about treating the symptoms here, what needs to be done is to tackle the issue at its root cause. In other words, we must stop inferior and non-compliant building materials and methods from being used in the first place. This requires regulatory amendment and proactive alternative solutions by fire regulatory officials prior to and during the construction process on every high-rise building.
Unfortunately, safety comes at a cost, but it's a cost that will allow one to be able to sleep soundly without waking up to a towering inferno scenario.