Docklands – Code failure or success?

Early Tuesday morning, a large residential apartment building caught fire in Melbourne. The building was safely evacuated and no serious injuries or fatalities occurred. But a 30+ meter vertical column of flame is a terrifying sight, and somewhat unexpected in a new (3-5 year old) building. So does the Docklands fire represent a success or failure of building codes?

The question, like all matters regulatory, is not as cut and dried as you might expect. To fully answer this question, you need to understand what building codes and regulations set out to do.

There are 3 main priorities when it comes to fire in buildings. First: keep people alive and get them out. This means early warning systems to alert occupants to the presence of fire and maintaining structural integrity and tenable conditions for as long as it takes to get people out. In simple terms, you should know there’s a fire before it’s unsurvivable and the building shouldn’t kill you faster than you can get out.

Second, a building fire should not endanger other property. This is why when you build close to boundaries, building codes make you use fire resisting materials and protect your openings. This is a legacy of truly horrific city wide conflagrations in earlier centuries. Burning down on your own footprint is vastly preferable to setting your neighborhood alight. It’s similar for units in a building: fire should be limited in how it can spread through the building.

Third (and it’s a distant third, a nice to have from a regulatory perspective) is property protection. The first two objectives indirectly provide some degree of property protection, even though this is not their focus.

So, how’d we do?
In this fire, the building has been successfully evacuated without fatalities. That’s the most important thing and a big success. At 2.30am in a residential building, the majority of occupants are going to be asleep and require waking through an audible signal – just about the worst scenario for fire in a high rise residential building.

There are reports that some residents were woken by fire fighters rather than alarms or sprinkler activation. That’s not necessarily evidence of a problem. Depending on the system design, occupant warning and alarm systems may not sound simultaneously through out the building in a fire event (unlike drills, which usually are simultaneous). There are valid reasons to do this, including to prevent exits from being overwhelmed. In any case, once fire fighters arrive at an incident, they typically take control of all active fire safety systems (which includes alarms and intercoms). Having said that, the operation and activation of the systems will clearly be subject to further scrutiny in coming days.

Another thing that will be looked at is ignition sources. It’s fairly clear at this stage that the fire started accidentally on a balcont. The use of an area is not something regulators can control post occupation. Australian building codes do not traditionally consider balconies to be a fire source feature and don’t require alarms to be fitted on them, or a high degree of protection for openings. That means that the fire or smoke presumably had to enter an apartment and then set off a detector. Which takes time. Which means more fire.

The biggest question from a code point of view is the facade. In Australia a residential building over 4 storeys in height must be of Type A construction. Under the deemed to satisfy provisions, that means external walls must be non-combustible (ie tested to AS1530.1). Typical non-combustible materials are masonry and concrete. A wall of flame spreading up your facade and breaching fire compartments? Not good, and not how I’d expect a non combustible element to behave.

So one of the big questions will be what material was used in the facade, followed by what path was used to approve the building (DTS or Alternative Solution). In both cases, the evidence that was relied upon to demonstrate non-combustibility for the wall system will be critical in figuring out if the Docklands fire was a freak one-off due to unique geometry, construction, conditions and bad luck, or evidence of a wider problem, such as a flawed code requirement or a misinterpretation to permit the installation of inappropriate material.

At this stage I’d say it’s a mixed outcome code-wise, but we won’t know for sure for a while. Importantly, everyone has survived, but there are likely to be many lessons for building and fire professionals as a result of this fire.

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