What are the risks with fire safety upgrades?

By Charles Fortin, Managing Director, Collard Maxwell Architects
Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

What are the risks with fire safety upgrades?

It is essential to have a clear strategy in place for delivering fire safety upgrades.

Last year the world watched in horror as the Grenfell Tower in London went up in flames. Since that disaster regulatory authorities and the construction industry have renewed their attention to the fire risks of cladding products, and there is now more impetus to perform building upgrades to remove high-risk products.

Architects need to operate with safety, people and liability in mind. This is why it is important for them to get involved with building upgrades — they have a high level of visibility across design, construction, legislation and, ultimately, materials.

The human factor

The number-one constraint in delivering upgrades is people.

When trying to conduct upgrades, the human factor is very important. For an upgrade to succeed, people need to be accountable. There are different types of people on a committee and sometimes ‘being right’ doesn’t matter. For instance, the designer may want something that’s great and costly; the builder may not want to compete for the business, but will often be more expensive; and the retiree living in the building can’t afford the average upgrade cost.

So what drives the process is typically fear. In the first instance there will be an order to do something immediately, or something has failed or collapsed, so the first thing that needs to be addressed is the fear of remediating and making the building safe.

A simple strategy is to start with a utilitarian approach and undertake a ‘form follows function’ approach. Do the basics first — make sure it works, it’s functional and it’s fixed. Then talk about what else you can do, from aesthetics or value-adds to the property.

Fire orders and remediation

In New South Wales a fire order can demand remedial building works to a new or existing building. While it would be ideal to be given a plan to resolve a fire order within five or 10 years, often you’re left without a long plan of action with non-negotiable red orders. For example, buildings more than 25 metres high need to have two egress staircases, and sometimes there’s none. So you have to think about ways to accelerate evacuation with that one staircase or by putting a new one in.

During remediation work there are some common value-adds that people will bring up. Things like accessibility upgrades, landscaping, foyers, lobbies, rooftop terraces and various additions that increase the yields in the building. These are very complex to deal with and should be saved until the end. Be sure to stage it in small pieces at first and look at what’s in there behind the walls. The rest of the work can then follow.

Understand the regulatory environment

Anyone who’s thinking about getting into this business should probably understand the legal part of it in the first instance. Look at the building code and know it very well. Understand that common laws, including strata laws, will get in the way and you need to know how to operate these laws and get good legal advice.

Understand government and how agencies works. We might think the government can just step in and help, but often this is not the case. Understand what their role is over the long term, not just in an emergency.

Lastly, work with experienced builders and consultants. This is critical because fire protection and upgrades is an expert field of work, not just standard.

Living with faulty materials

As we saw in London, faulty or not fit-for-purpose materials can carry a very high fire risk.

There are increasingly detailed requirements hanging over which cladding products can be used in construction. It is now virtually guaranteed that the property value will go down just because it looks like it has aluminium composite panel (ACP) cladding.

You need to get rid of those over time and even if you can’t afford to do it today, you can definitely stage a five- or 10-year plan. Try not to get the government to come in and nominate the answer — it is much better to allow a performance-based outcome and to get professionals involved early on in the process with fire protection.

Another danger with letting government step in and trying to resolve this issue with a broad brush is that it will stifle innovation. We wouldn’t have any composite style of materials if ACP was made illegal 20 years ago.

A fresh approach to risk mitigation

The first thing to do, and what the BCA wants you to do, is conduct a risk assessment with a focus on speed of evacuation.

Next, if you have the budget to deal with it, work at delaying and retarding the fire and the spread of fire.

The third course of action is to brief your fire general manager properly and early on in the process about the fire safety strategy. Make sure it’s part of the development application so if the property gets flipped, the knowledge is there with the next architect.

Finally, generate awareness through training, signage or whichever way you can. There are different tolerances for risks, and you don’t want to encroach on people’s liberty to accept such risks.

Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Roger Cotton

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