Standards Australia and the Australian Building Codes Board have developed a new standard that is set to improve fire safety through appropriate classification of the performance of external walls, yet more work is needed. Justin Felix caught up with technical director Kingspan Insulated Panels Dr Mark Tatam, and standards committee members, to discuss the issue.
The Lacrosse fire in Melbourne’s Docklands in November 2014 has sparked many discussions and calls to action regarding shoddy non-compliant cladding materials and adhesives, a lack of adequate testing and the use of such materials on external facades.
Post incident analysis conducted by the Melbourne Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFB) revealed that the southern wall was severely fire damaged with the majority of the Alucobest wall cladding consumed. Further examination of the wall components exposed damage to the combustible components within the panels and, along with foam lagging and the PVC pipework within the wall, the cladding contributed to the fire spreading at a rapid rate.
If it weren’t for the building’s fire sprinkler system, it has been largely agreed upon that the situation would have been even more severe with loss of lives a real possibility.
Needless to say, change was needed, particularly in the area of testing external high-rise cladding materials, as well as a further call to arms to combat the importation of non-compliant products.
While the National Construction Code currently requires cladding materials to be fire tested, the acceptability of external cladding systems has historically been determined by internal fire tests and/or small scale reaction to fire tests, involving relatively small fire sources and samples of restricted size.
Kingspan Insulated Panels has been extremely vocal in its support for mandatory full-scale fire testing for high rise cladding and has taken it upon itself to further educate industry stakeholders in the importance of such a requirement being enforced.
“With a growing demand for composite cladding materials and a predicted rise in commercial and multi-level apartment developments, the need for stringent large-scale fire testing of cladding materials is a critical safety measure,” said technical director Kingspan Insulated Panels Dr Mark Tatam.
“The main issue in Australia is the fact that it hasn’t had facade tests in place before. There have been tests developed overseas but nothing has been used here. Typically we have used small scale tests which aren’t really appropriate for external facades of buildings and they can give mixed results.”
Standards Australia in conjunction with the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has developed a new Australian Standard AS 5113 Fire propagation testing and classification of external walls of buildings that will provide a more accurate indication of the fire combustibility of wall claddings and wall assemblies, as it is based on large-scale facades fire testing.
The standard sets out procedures for testing and classification of external walls according to their tendency to limit the spread of fire across their surface and between neighbouring buildings. It can be applied to external vertical surfaces and external wall systems. AS 5113 also integrates international standard test methods where practicable.
“The Australian market has now developed a facade standard which we eventually hope will be picked up by the ABCB for use. People are slowly becoming aware of it and we are hoping people will test to that. The ABCB will also be hoping the market drives itself for a while and will see how it goes in terms of putting the pressure on product suppliers to conduct these tests. To some extent I know this is already happening, which is a step in the right direction.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to regulations, nothing happens quickly. The challenge for the ABCB is deciding when fire testing becomes mandatory. The next set of changes to the BCA come in effect in 2019 so the ABCB must decide whether to do something then (and rely on the industry to self-regulate in the meantime) or be more proactive.
“It’s a tricky one to implement, particularly when you need to look at a cost benefit analysis and assess how it will impact the building industry as a whole. It might prejudice some products (those that have already conducted extensive tests) over others,” Mark says.
“There is still a little chaos in the market place. People are expecting different things and hoping for different outcomes. They might be asking for things that product manufacturers don’t have at this stage but the good thing is, they are asking some important questions. They want to know about facades and how they are installed and that’s something that they haven’t asked about in the past.
“For example, a fire on a building could spread due to how the facade is attached, not just because of the materials the panel itself is constructed from. There may be gaskets or sealants that could spread the fire quite well. Fire engineers want to know how cladding systems are being fixed now. And that’s important.”
A number of notes have been put out by the likes of the Victorian Building Authority to define what an external wall and an attachment is.
“There have been a few grey areas in the BCA in terms of defining what those things are and it’s quite important to understand what they are because once you define a wall as needing to meet non-combustibility requirements that means the components on the wall have fire performance attributions as well. So you would expect the insulation, for example, to be non-combustible.”
Another area that Mark hopes the ABCB will focus on is that of specification as it is the first step of the building process and determines which cladding systems will be used. He uses the example below to highlight one of the current problems in the marketplace.
“An architect may specify a product which has been proven to withstand large fires and passed a range of tests only for a builder to change the specification at the last minute without knowing why that product was specified in the first place.
“That is an issue and highlights the importance of getting a product specified early on. The building approval process is not fully policed in terms of inspections and sign offs and unfortunately at the end of the day, the certifier gets paperwork across his desk which he is asked to sign off on. Sometimes he can do that, sometimes he cannot.
“Certifiers aren’t fire engineers and they may not be privy to whether or not a product has been substituted or not on the building site. I think the ABCB will be having a look at the approval process in terms of making it more rigid. The good thing is, there are more onuses on a certifier or the fire brigade signing off on an occupancy certificate. If there is any doubt, they are entitled to ask more questions,” Mark says.
The key to the industry learning more about the importance of selecting the right cladding materials is education and while training delivery is typically delivered by Registered Training Organisations and regulatory bodies, occasionally manufacturers take it upon themselves. Such is the case here as Kingspan has demonstrated over the past several months.
“It’s perhaps unfortunate that there is a range of insulated panels out there and it’s very difficult to ascertain the difference in a lot of cases. Once you have a facing material on a panel, you can’t actually determine what the core material is,” Mark explains.
“We are trying to educate the market on the different types of panel systems out there, what we provide and the fire performance of these panels. That will make it easier for specifiers to choose panels for their next project. We are working with fire engineers at the moment but hope to conduct ongoing educational seminars with a particular focus on educating builders and all stakeholders in the near future.”
Before choosing your next cladding material, be sure to conduct some thorough research of your own, and if an architect has specified a particular product, do yourself, the industry and the public a favour and ensure it comes with a CodeMark Certificate of Conformity.
Until the ABCB brings AS 5113 Fire propagation testing and classification of external walls of buildings into play, you play an important role in making sure that cladding systems and fixing materials are up to the task.