The tragic Grenfell Tower fire shone a much-needed spotlight on the regulatory and product sectors of fire safety in the UK construction industry.
RICS has been working closely with other countries helping them understand what is known so far about the Grenfell fire as well as what has happened since and potential changes to regulation and in other areas. The fire and particularly combustible cladding has attracted much attention in other countries which want to learn from the UK experience.
In the UK the use of combustible cladding and desktop studies in lieu of tests has been banned since 21 December 2018 for all new and refurbished residential hospital care homes schools with dormitories and student accommodation buildings more than 18m high. Australia and New Zealand have used these products extensively especially in larger cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.
The increase of tall towers in many cities has resulted in a proliferation of these cladding systems which are often not entirely understood. The materials that make up the finished product perform differently when combined with other components which is why fire testing is necessary to establish exactly how that product behaves.
Working with RICS Sydney RICS Auckland and other key stakeholders it has become clear how the different regulatory systems in these countries together with different demographics and building codes have still not prevented the possibility of combustible cladding.
In the Commonwealth of Australia the federal states and territories can define their own legislation. This causes a problem for the Federal Government of Australia and RICS UK engagement with the government building minister and the Building Ministers Forum representing all the states has found different approaches and resolutions. For example, two of the main states, Victoria - covering Melbourne - and New South Wales -covering Sydney - have no unified approach.
The current requirement is that any measures listed on the building's fire safety schedule must be inspected within three months before issuing an annual statement to the local authority and fire brigade. This means a competent person must assess and verify that the measures installed in the building comply with the original design standards or codes.
In 2014 the Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne spread rapidly due to combustible cladding. Legal arguments have raged since about who is responsible for funding replacement cladding. In Victoria the state cladding task force proposed a loan scheme attached to the council rates of a property to enable owners to fund remediation works and repay the loan through the tax system.
After Grenfell each state has been trying to establish how many buildings have aluminium composite panel cladding which they call ACP - a better term than aluminium composite materials as it is not easily confused with asbestos-containing materials (ACM).
The Australian regulatory system means that building surveyors whose role is similar to UK building control surveyors, must be licensed by each state where they practise. A two-track system of local authority building control and private certifiers came about at the same time as the UK arrangement.
Unfortunately, Australian building surveyors have come in for a lot of criticism because of the combustible cladding saga, which is reckoned to affect more than 10000 buildings across the country. As a result, RICS is engaged in developing proposals for the federal government which will see an improvement in trained, qualified building inspectors in an RICS-regulated scheme that is backed by professional indemnity insurance.
New Zealand is a much smaller country than Australia in terms of population; its cities and buildings are also smaller as is the problem of combustible cladding.
Although there have been strenuous efforts to identify all buildings with ACP cladding, the building code requirements for sprinklers in all buildings above three storeys have meant there is less to do by way of remediation. A walk around the central business district of Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, quickly reveals there are no really tall towers there unlike Sydney or Melbourne.
Reviewing the fire risk for the whole building, as RICS recommends, has meant that - with automatic fire suppression systems installed and other fire safety measures - cladding removal may not be necessary. Certainly fire and rescue services in New Zealand are confident of their approach.
The Building Warrant of Fitness (BWOF) system in New Zealand works reasonably well. A building owner needs to renew a BWOF every 12 months' signing issuing and publicly displaying it to prove the building's life-safety systems - referred to as specified systems - have been maintained and inspected. This applies to defined buildings which includes most but not low-level residential buildings.
Each year, a BWOF certificate must be issued for existing buildings based on up to 16 system inspections. Without this the building would be deemed unuseable and uninsurable; a BWOF confirms that its specified systems have been inspected and maintained as required under the compliance schedule.
The compliance schedule includes a detailed description of each specified system, performance standards for each and the inspection and maintenance procedures required to ensure they continue to function as intended. Specified systems help ensure a building is safe and healthy for people to enter occupy or work in.
Other documents include annual written reports, which must be kept with the compliance schedule for at least two years, and logbooks of inspections by owner, tenant, maintenance and inspection personnel, where these are a requirement of the compliance schedule.
The system is not perfect, and we are aware of minor grumbles from local practitioners, but we believe there are nonetheless lessons to be learned from the New Zealand system.
Gary Strong FRICS is RICS global building standards director and chair of the UN-backed International Fire Safety Standards Coalition email@example.com
Related competencies include: Fire safety