Following the tragic Grenfell Towers fire in the UK, the CEO of Fire Safety Australia (FSA), Scott Williams, is urging the federal government to consider setting up a national register of fire-rated building materials to help prevent a similar situation happening here.
In Australia, fire rated building materials are governed by an existing Australian standard - AS5113:2016: Fire propagation testing and classification of external walls of buildings.
Used in conjunction with the Building Code of Australia (BCA) for building materials, AS5113:2016 covers ‘fire propagation via all external vertical or near vertical surfaces and covers all types of external wall systems, including façades, outer skins, core materials, cavities and attachments.’
Williams, who heads up the only organisation in Australia that can legally accredit inspectors to test fire rated building materials, says cladding used on buildings can be “cheap, from China or whatever- so long as its fire-rated.”
“Cheap is OK—as long as it passes AS5113,” says Williams.
All this comes as Britain’s Sun newspaper continues to campaign against the Reynobond PE cladding used on the Grenfell Tower, claiming it was a ‘cheaper’ (i.e. non-fire resistant) version, which according to the tabloid was also “banned in America on buildings taller than 40ft [12.2m] for safety reasons”.
According to the distributors of Reynobold, Arconic, there are two versions of the cladding - one which is fire rated, known as A2 and another, which is not fire rated.
The Sun also claims that the difference in cost between using the fire rated cladding and the non-fire rated version was as little as $10,000 for that particular building.
Williams says that he has recently had a range of conversations with the federal government about how to deal with the issue of non-compliant building materials, with both the FSA and government agreeing in principle on a range of ideas to minimise the human component when specifying and installing cladding on high rise residential buildings.
What I’d like to see is a national register of complaint and non-compliant cladding – a bit like what we do with medicines and the PBS,” Williams said.
“I’d like to see a national list or register of ‘fit for purpose’ cladding that will allow architects and designers, when they need to specify fire resistant cladding, to simply be able to refer to the register”.
This has been echoed by the Australian Steel Institute (ASI), whose CEO Tony Dixon, called for an independent verification scheme for building products.
“While we recognise that it is extremely onerous to retro-check every component of a large building, there are practical ways of ensuring that building codes and regulations are honoured, such as independently assessed certification schemes for contractors or targeted assessment tools,” Dixon said.
“With this approach, you are heading off issues long before they can become ‘life and limb’ risks,” he noted.
For its part, the NSW Coalition government under Mike Baird initiated an enquiry into fire safety in buildings back in 2015.
Overseen by Michael Lambert and part of “Strengthening Certification in NSW”, the Lambert Report’s findings were not only wide-ranging, but also timely, with many of the recommendations due to come into effect as of July 1 this year.
These recommendations were:
• Immediately strengthen fire safety certification for new and existing buildings.
• Be required that only persons who are certified and accredited design, install, instruct and maintain fire safety systems.
• Tighten the accuracy of the current system with “annual fire safety statement checks”.
• Reinforce site inspections for certain building types.
• Require only suitably trained and qualified persons install passive fire safety measures.
Williams says that these kind of ideas; fit for purpose compliancy registers, clearer and enforceable government regulations and a proper and competency-based training regime of fire safety inspectors will go a long way in eliminating the potential of a Grenfell Tower scenario in Australia.
“It’s a huge task – but let’s be clear - this is not so much a cladding issue as a discipline issue,” says Williams.