Rarely does the event of a major fire not become news, especially if it has significantly damaged a building, affected the community, and claimed lives.
However Professor Jose Torero, Head of the School of Engineering at the University of Queensland, points out that most of the events where buildings perform well in a fire are never heard of or talked about, “because nothing happened at the end.”
“The building controlled the fire and the event was just a minor mishap that will never make the papers,” says Professor Torero.
In an industry where the true performance of fire safety systems and fire resistant products are only established in the event of the fire – which could never occur – designing by disaster has become the ‘way of life’.
Considering the success of a product or innovation in a structural or building application is therefore limited, but not impossible. Here are four instances where Australian buildings have resisted being overcome by fires of varying degrees.
Bushfire-proof Test House in Mogo, NSW
Constructed almost entirely from steel and featuring a non-flammable roof cavity, this test house built by the National Association of Steel Framed Houses and the CSIRO was designed to be burnt. In 2010, the CSIRO team, led by scientist Justin Leonard, mimicked a range of bushfire conditions in the test, from ember attacks to engulfing the structure in flames. According to Leonard, the scenario created was an extreme one, with the duration of the flame immersion longer than a bushfire could possibly dish up.
The house, a small, low-rise building with most of the features of a domestic home, passed the test singed, but standing, although some failures were noted. It consisted of an elevated steel framed floor, steel wall framing with steel cladding and plasterboard lining, as well as a steel truss roof with steel roof sheeting and a plasterboard ceiling.
Karaoke Bar in Burwood, NSW
A fire at a karaoke bar in NSW’s Burwood had fully engulfed the brick building, and threatened to spread to the adjoining residential boarding properties. However, only cosmetic damage occurred as Gyprock’s Fyrchek Plasterboard stood up to the flames, stopping the fire from spreading and ensuring minimal damage.
Featuring a processed glass fibre-reinforced gypsum core, the Gyprock Fyrchek Plasterboard is designed for use in fire rated wall and ceiling systems, as well as in applications requiring acoustic performance. Gyprock Fyrchek is manufactured locally to AS 2588, and predominantly specified in commercial installations in areas where a higher level of fire resistance is required.
Linga Longa in Buxton, VIC
Satellite image of smoke and pyrocumulus cloud northeast of Melbourne during the morning of February 7, 2009
Homes destroyed by 2009 VIC bushfires. Images Wikipedia
Owner and builder Peter McCormack had designed a country retreat for him and his wife in 12 hectares at Victoria’s Buxton area in 2007, Light Home reported. Knowing the risks the bushland site presented, he constructed the home with fire-resistant planning in mind, choosing a concrete veranda, steel posts, and Scyon Linea’s weatherboard.
Scyon Linea Weatherboard. Image: Scyon.com.au
McCormack’s home was left standing when the Victorian bushfires of 2009 destroyed almost everything in the town, including his neighbour’s dwelling, which was burnt to the ground. While he has no certain explanations, he does attribute the survival of his home to the use of the fibre cement weatherboard, as well as the aluminium corners that the weatherboard slotted into – Linea Corner Soakers.
“Certainly as an owner-builder, [the Linea Corner Soakers] were easy to install, but in hindsight, as many of the houses were ignited by ember strike, having no entry points for embers might have also made a different,” he said.
Steels Creek Home in VIC
Despite being attacked by fire twice on Black Saturday, from two different directions, electrical engineer Guy Williams' Steels Creek home stood solid while everything around it was razed to the ground.
Williams had bought the 37 hectare block in 1993, clearing enough trees to lay a concrete slab and build a frameless house with CSR Hebel's aerated concrete bricks stuck with glue. The house had no external timber, and the door frames were made of steel. When the fire that bore down on his home reached about 1200 degrees, the metal was softened but did not melt. Some panes of the double glazed glass doors and windows cracked in the heat, and Williams now knows to add shutters.
Pinning his survival on luck, he also admitted that common sense when he built his home contributed to the fact that his home still stands. For instance, the sprinkler system he installed, which consisted of 30 sprinkler heads around the house and operating on three levels, had emitted a fine spray of water when the house was under attack.
"I am unlucky and lucky," he told the Herald Sun. "I'm hoping for anyone to learn what I've been through."