By FM Global Australia operations chief engineer Andre Mierzwa.
The horrifying inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in London last year has governments and authorities around the world racing to minimise the risk of such an event ever happening again. As a result, owners of buildings with multiple levels are experiencing increasing stress and uncertainty.
The ramifications of this disaster are being felt in Australia, with governments making changes to improve safety and compliance. A communique in October 2017 from the Building Ministers’ Forum – consisting of Commonwealth, State and Territory Ministers responsible for building and plumbing policy – outlined national efforts to act on potentially hazardous cladding, improving the overall safety and compliance of Australian buildings.
In Victoria, a special taskforce reportedly found combustible cladding posed a potential fire risk for up to 1,400 buildings in the state. This included eight hospitals.
In New South Wales – where 1,000 buildings were reportedly at risk – the government has proposed a package of reforms designed to reduce the risks associated with combustible cladding. A draft regulation, which is on display until 16 February 2018, requires owners to register with the government if their building has combustible wall cladding and if necessary, undertake a fire safety assessment.
Over the border in Queensland, the government has established an audit taskforce to investigate buildings using aluminium composite cladding and other potentially combustible products. State Parliament has also passed legislation addressing non-conforming building products.
Banks, insurers and tenants across the country are reportedly reviewing their exposures to properties with cladding that does not comply with the current building code, while the code itself is expected to be updated within the next few weeks.
These changes – and the complexity associated with managing more technologically advanced facilities, including lifts and air-conditioning units – are placing increasing pressure on owners and the corporations established to manage properties. In many cases, they simply do not know what to do next.
There’s no shortage of technical advice for confused owners of multi-level buildings but the number of experts in Australia with the specialised knowledge to help owners manage their exposure to their properties and occupants is small. This means the gap is often filled by consultants without all the appropriate skill sets needed (fire testing, fire safety engineering and fire protection design) providing potentially inadequate and inconclusive services.
This may give owners a false impression about whether their buildings comply with relevant codes and regulations, increasing their exposure to penalties and litigation in the event of a disaster.
How to ensure compliance
So what conversations should the owners of multi-level buildings be having with insurers, regulatory bodies and fire safety engineers/consultants? It’s important they cover a range of building risk, insurance and regulatory issues.
The Insurance Council of Australia offers this guidance:
- Ifyou suspect any of your building’s façade materials may be ACPs, find out for certain and then determine what category you’re dealing with. Testing labs listed in the ICA Protocol can come out and take appropriate samples, or you can engage a qualified consultant to work with them on sampling and identification.
- If it’s confirmed that your building has ACPs, the next step is to advise yourinsurer and let them know what category the ACPs fall into. They will advise you of any insurance implications and depending on the insurer, make recommendations around remediation or risk reduction measures.
- Next, obtain the services of a qualified fire safety engineer to review the life safety and code complianceissues that arise from the detection of ACPs. If your property is sprinkler protected, the services of a fire protection engineer or sprinkler system designer would also be needed to conduct a proper hydraulic analysis of how your active fire protection would respond to an ACP fire. With all the information gathered, the consultants would provide advice on risk mitigation and rectification. The Fire Safety Engineer should write a report covering the analysis and performance solutions needed to make sure the building is acceptable from a life safety perspective.
- Anyrecommended rectification works should then be agreed upon by all key stakeholders, including yourself, the owner; the insurer; regulator (building surveyor); council; fire authority and fire safety engineer.