By: Peter Hughes
Building Standards, risk and life safety in New Zealand
Grenfell Tower was an appalling disaster for the victims, their families and friends, and many others. How could it have happened in a country with advanced building control systems? Hopefully, the public enquiry will give answers, with some applicable to New Zealand.
Can we feel complacent while awaiting the results of that enquiry? No, because there are problems with our building control system and related Standards for high-rise and complex buildings.In 1992 New Zealand was one of the first countries to change the philosophy of the Building Act from a very prescriptive system to a performance-based code. This includes
acceptable solutions based on conformance with cited Standards, and alternative solutions using engineered solutions equal to or better than the acceptable solutions. This system has generally worked well in providing cost-effective construction utilising new technology.
With the introduction of the performance-based building codes in New Zealand more buildings are being designed and constructed using fire-engineered alternative solutions instead of the newer but sometimes limiting acceptable solutions.
The Building Warrant of Fitness Regulations (BWoF) were introduced to ensure that specified fire safety features installed in a building as part of an acceptable solution or an alternative solution are serviced and maintained in accordance with the relevant Standards, or the manufacturer's instructions, and remain in a fully operational condition.
There are a number of New Zealand Standards covering various aspects of fire safety, which are cited as acceptable solutions in the New Zealand Building Code. Examples include:
· Automatic Sprinkler Systems NZS4541: 2013
· Fire Detection and Alarm Systems in Buildings NZS 4512:2010
· Hand Operated Fire Fighting Equipment NZS 4503: 2005
· Fire hydrant systems for buildings NZS 4510: 2008.
Since the changes that absorbed Standards New Zealand in to MBIE there has been a delay in reviewing and updating many fire- and life-safety Standards. Some are nearly 10 years old and, with the advance of new technology, becoming out of date. This means there is a backlog of reviews and updating of such Standards. This work will be done by volunteers and funded by industry.
Provided the BWoF requirements for alternative solutions have been recorded in the compliance schedule for a building, such specified systems are likely to be independently tested and maintained. However, if the compliance schedules are incomplete and in fire-engineered alternative solution buildings these integrated fire safety systems may be difficult to identify, potentially resulting in the original fire safety designs being compromised by designers of refurbishment programmes or fit-out contractors being unaware of the original specifications.
Such changes to the original specifications may compromise the fire safety systems and may go undetected for months or years. During that time a fire may not be controlled or escape routes function as intended.
We have some comprehensive sets of Standards that cover most of the fire safety features installed in buildings but we do not have a specific Standard to ensure the continuing functionality of an integrated fire safety systems installed to the original alternative solution for fire safety. We believe this is a gap that should be filled.
New technology is a key part of acceptable and alternative solutions with more intelligent fire control system panels providing a wide range of interconnections between fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems and other building services. These include lifts, escalators, heating systems, ventilation systems and air-conditioning – the sorts of systems that may be found in modern high rise buildings.
This new generation of automatic fire detection also has a greater role as part of modern sprinkler installations. In addition to the above building services there are specific fire separation designs which use a variety of methods to provide separate fire cells, such as drop-down fire or smoke curtains or shutters and fire doors.
Traditionally the fire industry has separated installation, testing, servicing and maintenance between sprinkler contractors and fire alarm contractors, with little or no contact between the “pipes and wires” disciplines and very little liaison between the various suppliers and fitters. The design and installation of other building services is also a specialist business requiring detailed knowledge of the specific systems, but not necessarily their interaction with fire systems.
Testing of fire systems
We have found in both acceptable solutions and alternative solutions that sometimes:
· fire alarm technicians have tested the fire alarm
· sprinkler technicians have tested the sprinkler system
· fire industry technicians have tested the fire suppression system
· air-conditioning contractors have tested their systems
· lift engineers have tested the lifts.
But no one has done a full functionality test to ensure that in an emergency the interrelated systems work as originally designed and, sometimes, no continuing service and maintenance regimes have been implemented.
Is there an acceptable solution?
We support the development of an integrated fire and life safety systems Standard for New Zealand but, beyond that, we are in a user pays situation with very few participants, so funding from the fire protection industry is increasingly hard to source. Not only do such companies have to pay a substantial levy to MBIE's Standards division, they also have to support Standards writing and revision at their own cost in time and expenses.
Work revising one Standard can total several full days – even weeks and months. Can the industry afford the voluntary time and costs to review all of these Standards in a meaningful time frame?
What are the alternatives?
We could increase our involvement with Standards Australia to produce joint Standards, or we could participate in ISO Standards development and adapt them for use in New Zealand conditions. But someone will still need to pay the costs of such work and those who sit on joint committees still have to give their time and pay their own travel expenses.
MBIE and other government agencies could hire competent staff, funded from levies and general taxes, but this may run counter to government philosophy.
There are pluses and minuses for all the options, but now is the time to consider the alternatives to ensure we have a strong and viable Standards base for use in New Zealand.
We don’t want our own Towering Inferno disaster.