Architects and Safe Design for High Rise Residential Building

In the rush to ‘build up,’ we need to ask: how compliant are the building products and method of construction?

Ominously, there may be a number of building products being supplied to the Australian market that do not boast sufficient evidence of compliance with Australian Standards or the Building Code of Australia, even when one measures compliance against the performance requirements in the Building Code to seek an ‘alternative solution.’

Last year’s building fire in Docklands, Melbourne has focussed everyone’s attention on the use of external wall cladding to apartment buildings where the material used may not be properly fire rated.

This is a health and safety factor of significant gravity. The actions of not only the architectural designer but also that of others such as the developer, the builder, the relevant building surveyor and the wall cladding supplier have been called into question.

The apartment complex event in November 2014 involved a rapid spread of fire over many floors very quickly, apparently from a discarded cigarette on a balcony. Extensive property damage eventuated but the the risk of personal harm or death is the real concern. Worryingly, there may be as many as 100 other apartment buildings in Melbourne using the same external wall cladding material.

This cladding product was an imported Alucobest panel that was ‘standard grade’ and not the fire resistant version (Alucobest FR). The ‘standard’ Alucobest cladding was in fact not only non-compliant but combustible. If not for the fire sprinkler operating above capacity, the fire damage could have been even worse.

A key imperative in modern construction is to have a building constructed as cheaply and quickly as possible. The cost saving pressures are a temptation to make changes to an architect’s original design, for example via cost cutting variations. If  a developer’s variation to an architect’s design creates later issues, potentially the architect can claim their liability is lessened to the extent that their design was altered – but only if the architect was not privy to the change.

Problems for an architect can arise where a faulty or non-compliant building product or construction method was part of the their design, or if the architect has approved a problematic variation to the original design or specification.

Not surpisingly, to achieve compliance, the building’s external walls should have been non-combustible, as determined under AS1530.1:1994 (Combustibility Test for Materials), and/or would need to meet the Building Code (BCA) criteria under clause C1.12 of the BCA.

However, standard grade Alucobest external cladding had been used here, and not the Alucobest FR product with better fire resistance. When it was tested, the ‘standard’ Alucobest failed the AS1530.1 benchmarks. Even Alucobest FR has not been tested under AS1530.1, but has been tested for non-combustibility under international standards.

Following advice from the MFB, it appears that neither of these Alucobest products have been tested successfully in Australia, nor have they recieved a certificate of conformity or accreditation. Remembering that the actual cladding product used was ‘standard’ Alucobest, the problems were that the product had not passed any test under the relevant Australian Standard and that the product could not be described as compliant with the performance requirements of the BCA.

Both the Council and the MFB supplied reports into the fire incident. While the MFB recommends fire sprinklers for the balconies in future, the Council suggested that the approved design documents did not provide sufficient design detail to specify the combustibility level of the wall cladding. This called into question the level of detail that had been approved by the RBS when the building permit was issued.

There are also, it is fair to say, question marks over the adequacy of the architect’s design. Who was it who specified the use of a non-compliant building product. Was it the architect or did its inclusion come about as a result of a variation?

Beyond these matters, the role of the overseas supplier has been considered, given the supply of an apparently combustible external cladding material for a high rise residential apartment. If there were to be any negligence claim against this foreign supplier though, it would prove a difficult and elusive quarry due to its location in another country.

The moral of this story is that building designers have to be highly cautious and ensure they only specify and design construction using compliant products, particularly in a high rise residential setting.

Similarly, building surveyors charged with approving building permits based on such designs, and with conducting inspections and approvals, need to make sure that what they approve contains enough detail about the level of compliance. This is all the more important in areas touching on health and safety.