Category Archives: Ephemera and other detritus

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.

New year, new things…

I like the beginnings of things. A new note book, a new blog post, new car smell… So perhaps it’s no surprise that I also like new year resolutions. I don’t make many, but I do tend to keep them. This year, I’ve decided on a new approach. This year, I’m not making any resolutions. 

And I’m not alone. Bob Borson, over at LifeofanArchitect did a neat blog on goals vs resolutions recently. Likewise, the ThesisWhisperer posted about having a theme instead of a resolution in 2013. There’s also a Scientific American article by Melanie Tannenbaum on why sharing your resolutions isn’t the best way to keep them. And finally, to round out the topic, Fast. Co got in on the action by suggesting you reframe resolutions as questions. 

So, just quietly, I’m moving my resolutions into goal questions, gathered around a theme. I’m going to share a trivial one here, my bigger ones will be staying private.

The traditional resolution to “get fitter” has become the question “How can I design exercise into my daily life?”. And it turns out there are lots of things I can change to increase the amount of exercise in my life. I can plan and undertake asymmetrical commuting (ride/run to work, bus home, then the reverse. Bonus: Sydney traffic and public transport is so bad that it’s often comparable timewise). I can pre-make bigger meals, so when I come home sweaty and starving I can eat healthy leftovers, instead of waiting to cook something. I can change my running route to include a body of water so I can’t take short cuts. I can choose to turn chores into opportunities, for example, running to the far store for juice instead of a short walk to the near one. I like tangible progress, so plotting my increasing speed/distance with Excel is rewarding for me. I know I do best with routines and some social aspects to my fitness, so I’m really looking forward to three months of AFL preseason (one week to go!) starting up next week.

Here’s to success!

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Flawed systems and forgetting keys

Generic photo of keys. You've seen one bunch, you've seen 'em all. Every time I return to the house, I place my keys in a designated zone. Every time I leave the house, I pick up my keys and check that I’m carrying my wallet, keys and phone using the ‘three pocket pat down’.  I’ve been doing this for many years, in many houses. But this year, my system has repeatedly failed me and I’ve locked myself out on several occasions. It’s a new trend and it’s very annoying.

But I’m convinced it’s a flaw in my system that can be iterated out.

First iteration

Incident: I discover during my pat down that I am lacking keys AND phone. Sadly, I have already shut the door behind me.

Problem: Right system, wrong place. Pat down occurs too close to door. Normal motion carries me out the door before I have confirmed I am carrying keys.

Reason previously avoided: In previous accommodation, key zone was located in bedroom, not hallway. Pat down occurred on way to front door, not during exit.

Solution: Move key zone further away from door.

Second Iteration

Incident:  I grabbed my thumb drive from the key zone – and left my keys behind.

Problem: Right place, wrong item. Too many items can be stored in the key zone.

Reason previously avoided: Key zone was a table too small to store other items. New key zone is on a low boy, which has other items on it.

Solution: Redefine key zone boundary – a bowl on the low boy, rather than an area.

Third Iteration

Incident: During my pat down, I mistook my car key for my house keys, and believing myself to be carrying my house key, I left. 

Problem: Car key and house keys have a similar weight/tactile feel through clothing layers.

Reason previously avoided: car keys and house keys were on same key ring.

Solution: add distinctive item to car key ring.

So there you have it folks. For me, keys need to be stored in a small, distinctive location not too close to the door and have distinctive key rings. Fingers crossed I’ve designed out getting locked out!

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Laser tag, architecture and urban warfare.

Lego Laser Darth [technically a lightsaber]

I got this from the interwebz. If it’s yours, happy to add attribution/remove.

Every so often, I like to go and get my nerd on. This impulse manifests in a variety of ways, but of late, I’ve been getting my laser tagging butt handed to me by teenagers on the regular. Being a geek and a nerd means that I like to spend the time while I wait for reanimation thinking about the spatial implications of laser tag, architectural theory and military strategy. Because I’m cool like that.

I’ve been to a range of laser tag venues, and they tend to have common features. Arenas are often in spaces that are effectively a secondary enclosure in a larger building (such as a shed or shopping centre). As a result, they are usually completely internal (no external aperatures or light) and can be sunk into semi-darkness at will. In addition to the the hard boundaries that this secondary enclosure represents, there are often a range of smaller insertions. These take a range of forms and include fixed insertions such as columns and walls, (usually slit to provide apertures through which you can shoot and be shot); enclosures (areas bounded by a perimeter hard wall, an insertion wall and usually incorporating overhead horizontal elements); movable cover (such as inflatable opaque balls) and ramps to access elevated areas (anywhere between a full story above or a mere half meter).

Less tangibly, the ambient noise of electronic music and the artificial ‘explosions’ and updates that issue from your equipment distract you from the faint smell of sweat (or if you’re particularly unlucky, Lynx deodorant) of your equipment. Some venues will also pump smoke machines periodically, which allow you to follow the line of your laser rather rely on the small dot it makes on your target [nerd fact: most indoor laser tag games are actually infrared with laser targeting systems]. Due to the health and safety concerns innate in an activity that require you to move around in a gloomy obstacle strewn room, glowing tape and padding are used liberally. This covers the physical elements of the arena.

The second element of laser tag is the strategic element. The characteristics of the laser tag encounter are usually negotiated between participants prior to commencement. Options include dividing into equal two groups (A vs B, a symmetrical warfare scenario in which friendly fire is impossible), dividing into small teams (A v B v C…, multiple opponent mode, usually symmetrical and friendly fire is impossible), or simple ‘every man for themselves’ scenarios (where shifting alliances may emerge, but all fire is hostile). ‘Base protect’ versions of the team games are also popular. Further variations are possible to ensure that players of different skill levels can play together (eg more skilled players may need to shoot a beginner several times to deactivate them), while higher skill level players may have a reduced number of ‘lives’. The type of match selected (as well as personal game play preferences) can have a profound effect on the use of space in the arena.

Eyal Weizman has written extensively on the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) concept on “walking through walls”, the result of the rather unlikely union of architectural theory and modern urban warfare. This approach includes several elements, but in particular relies on drastically reconfiguring the concepts of movement. Soldiers avoid open spaces such as roads and paths instead travelling by erupting into private apartments through walls and roofs and emerging unexpectedly through party walls and floors. For example, it is possible for the IDF to subvert a planned ambush by literally cutting through a building to emerge behind a group located around a corner, rather than following conventional paths.

While the goals of laser tag players are often geared around maximising the number of encounters (and thereby points) rather than systematically and physically advancing through and occupying territory to assert control, the basic premise that abandoning preconceptions about how space can be used or occupied and replacing it with a creative approach holds.

Despite the fact that laser battles take place in small, purpose built arenas where there is either arbitrary or no territory to defend and there are no pre-existing assumptions regarding thoroughfares or public/private spaces to disrupt, a lifetime of expectations and conditioning on how to use space and evade physical projectiles is still evident. You cannot lob a laser ‘over’ or around something and walls can obstruct as much as they protect. Skilled laser tag players quickly learn that proximity can provide safety by making shot angles too tight, while distance offers no protection from a light beam. A deactivated player can be used as a physical shield (thank you Ender Wiggin) or use the temporary increase in stealth and mobility that a darkened vest offers to relocate. Everywhere hides a potential enemy – and every enemy is a potential target. In a multiple opponent game, your side is someone else’s front and you can never be sure whether you’re ‘behind’ a column – or if someone else is behind you.

Since playing laser tag, my understanding of what role simple architectural elements like narrow windows, sill heights, ramps, corridors, balustrade walls, tapered columns and zigzagged corners has rapidly expanded. An enclosure with two exits may be easier to escape – but harder to defend. Ramps and doors are natural constriction points and are thus easier to defend single handedly. A change of direction or a zigzag can offer safe haven and elevation is almost always your friend. And just as important are the abstract lessons. Doing the simple things well can be the difference between triumph and disaster. Switching between two ideas half way through because you got ‘bored’ will only result in chaos. There’s a time to be creative and a time to learn from history. And so on. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to a dark room to point glowing sticks at people. I’ll be the one walking through walls.

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Risks and rewards… Audacity pays off.

Here’s an extract from my final submission for PP1: Brief Writing. This subject culminates with the preparation of a 16-20 page document [“the brief”] in which you assemble all the background information on your proposed final project: site analysis (demographics, culture, neighbourhood, history, topography, climate, microclimate etc), precedent selection and analysis, programmatic requirements, statutory and regulatory requirements, design research question, client requirements, financial planning and some other bits and pieces. The brief forms the basis of the project report for external markers and your second semester tutor. In addition to this, I decided to say what I really thought in a cheeky introduction… I very nearly chickened out, but thought ‘f*ck it, you only live once and I think it works’. Turns out it was the most successful part of the whole submission! I’ve reproduced it below.

foreward/disclaimer: an audacious proposal


A final year project is traditionally treated as an opportunity not only to display professional skills acquired over several years of painstaking effort, but as a chance to push the boundaries of what architecture is and what it can be. It also offers the chance to nail your colours to the mast, to make a statement about what you value within architecture and what interests you.

With so much expectation, a great deal of thought and superstition influences the careful selection of site (it should be near water), program (it needs to have a social conscience) and research question (“can a dead male European theorist inform the spatiality of a maternal health building in Tanzania?”).

For the career minded students with one eye on their portfolio, the temptation to choose a project that aligns with the interests of a desired employer or their intended career trajectory is often irresistible. Too often this results in shiny renderings of indifferent projects stuffed with good intentions executed in a demonstration of tolerable competence.

This is not one of those projects. This project is fun.

The Angel St Derby Centre is utterly frivolous. A career as a professional roller derby venue architect does not beckon. The project is improbable, but not impossible. In all likelihood, the Angel St Derby Centre will never be funded, never be built and never be the subject of a monograph. Taking a cue from roller derby, this project is chutzpah sprayed in giant letters across cheap plywood scaffolding, assembled with love and gaffer tape rather than good sense. It’s an oasis of exuberant, flippant humour, amid a sea of ponderous propositions.

But as anyone who has watched derby knows, fun is serious business. Having a ludicrously farcical idea, the only way to execute it is with utter solemnity.

The Angel St Derby Centre juggles busy public space and an unconventional program (roller derby venue) on an urban brown field site with a dilapidated heritage listed building. These competing demands require a sophisticated understanding of the intersection between site, heritage and program for successful resolution.

To add further depth to the project, the design research question was framed to use the characteristics of the program to unpick and re-examine the notions of adaptive re-use.