In 1997 Australia adopted a performance-based building code (BCA96). It came about from decades of excellent research into fire-safety science, engineering and human behaviour, and was intended to give better building designs and increased productivity.
Legislation was put into place to enable the use of PB design, and the ‘safety net’ of the prescriptive ‘deemed to satisfy ‘(DTS) provisions of the BCA were retained to give recipes for building designers to follow if they chose not to adopt a performance-based approach. At a similar time, some states introduced private certification as an alternative to councils issuing building and occupancy permits.
Some education programmes were created, and some states developed requirements for education and registration for fire-safety engineers and certifiers; others did not. Differing approaches were adopted towards approval requirements for PB designs in each state and territory, and some Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) moved to educate their staff to an extent; many did not.
Despite the lack of consistency in approach, an extent of PB design has become common for design of infrastructure and buildings. It is generally used in conjunction with prescriptive provisions, often more as code variation rather than more holistic PB design, with building certifiers responsible for the prescriptive design and fire-safety engineers only responsible for the performance-based bits. That may not have been the intention of a PB code, but that’s how it has played out in practice.
In the 22 years since the adoption of a PB code we have created some amazing buildings and infrastructure and continued to move the industry forward in terms of knowledge and experience, but the fire-safety engineering profession, and indeed the building industry more broadly, has also been the subject of criticism around fire-safety standards. Why is that?
Arguably part of the root cause of the issues relates to the implementation of the PB Code. In 1997 we had no Washington Accord accredited fire-safety engineering degrees (and in fact in Australia there is only UQ recently accredited1). This meant we lacked the first component of a professional profession; the full and properly robust fire-safety engineering education.
Those responsible for building approvals, mostly local councils at that time, understandably had few people with the skills to understand and implement a PB building code. The same applied to the fire brigades and to many private certifiers. The fact that the ‘performance requirements’ in the BCA do not contain measurable benchmarks of performance made the whole approach more challenging.
So, the default quickly became a reliance on the prescriptive provisions, with fire engineers needing to justify deviations from the DTS provisions, rather than adopting a more holistic approach to developing a fire-safety strategy for a building.
This is a mistake; the DTS provisions have never been shown to provide an acceptable level of safety, and many requirements are based on historical events1 (travel distances from a theatre fire evacuation in Edinburgh in 19112, compartmentation requirements from post-war surveys in the UK3). As such we still have no idea if the DTS provisions are ‘acceptable’, and design based on varying them therefore makes no sense.
Inevitably stakeholders in design and approval have different drivers: building designers generally to meet their client’s goals; fire-safety engineers and certifiers are in a strange position of meeting their client’s goals but in several jurisdictions also act in the public interest; and the AHJs, particularly fire brigades, have strong public interest but generally see that as best served by following prescriptive provisions. As best practice, the different experiences of the stakeholders can create design excellence; at worst, the design teams see the brigades as blockers who don’t understand design (and most brigades have not been exposed to the design process) and the brigades see design teams as trying to cut corners and save money, and their job is to protect society from fire-safety engineers, certifiers and developers.
There are many examples where these are valid views; there are a great many where they are not.
Despite all this…
It’s easy to focus on the challenges and mistakes, but a PB building code and the fire-safety profession have contributed positively and significantly to the economy and to fire safety. A recent study4 concluded that the PB building code is worth $780M per annum to the Australian economy in productivity benefits and could be worth twice that if there were greater adoption of PB design.
PB fire-safety engineering has been used to create more sustainable buildings, preserve heritage, create safer buildings through holistic consideration of fire safety, create greater ‘wellness’ for building occupants, give more robustness through simpler designs, create better experiences for users, create buildings that lead to better medical-research outcomes, create more cost-effective buildings and infrastructure (which means public money can be used elsewhere), and many more benefits.
Having a fire-safety engineer on a project means that there is a greater chance that there is someone considering fire-safety design, use, construction, commissioning and maintenance in a broader sense; that results in more robust buildings.
It is also worth noting that many of the issues in fire safety (combustible cladding, the building penetrations issue in NSW in the late ’90s resulting in the ‘Quality of Buildings’ report in 20025, the many building defects identified across the country) have not arisen from the use of PB designs but either the application of prescriptive provisions or, mostly commonly, the quality of construction. It may be that the solution is not to have less PB design but instead more.
Creating the future
How do we unlock the productivity benefits that the PB building code offers? How do we improve the building industry? How do we get to a position of trust in the fire-safety engineering profession, and build on the valuable experience that all stakeholders can bring to the table?
Firstly, we need to consider what the building industry is going to need from fire-safety engineers in the future. Should someone have ownership of all aspects of fire safety in a building design? Someone who not only develops a PB design but also considers the design in its holistic sense, and then carries the responsibility through detailed architectural and systems design, through construction and into commissioning and occupation. My prediction is that we will want greater involvement of a fire-safety engineer to ‘join up’ all aspects of fire safety, as it impacts all parts of a building design. This is the ‘chain of responsibility’ from concept design to commissioning and handover that is advocated by Shergold/Weir6.
Arguably if the level of safety from a DTS design is unknown, then application of it should be done with caution by professionals who are best placed to judge if a certain prescriptive solution is appropriate in a given case.
This suggests a greater need for education, and a broadening of the fire-safety profession. There is already a global shortage of fire-safety engineers, so any changes in the role of a fire-safety engineer needs to be done in a considered way, but we should plan for it and educate accordingly.
Some of the fundamental mistakes made in the adoption of a PB building code 22 years ago can be undone now, with our learnings and experience.
- A Washington Accord degree now exists; this should be the benchmark for the profession in the future. It’s an engineering profession and needs to be developed accordingly.
- The performance requirements of the NCC need to be better articulated to allow performance of any given design to be verified against them.
- There should be consistency for accreditation and registration for fire engineers across Australia.
- Clarity of a fire-safety engineer’s role is needed, again with national consistency. What do we want and expect from a fire-safety engineer? Where does their role start and stop?
The future of fire-safety engineering should be a positive one; we are at a point of change in the industry and that brings opportunity to create the future we want for fire safety, for all stakeholders.
For more information, go to thewarrencentre.org.au/project/fire-safety-engineering/
- The Warren Centre (2019) Fire Safety Engineering Education Report
- Ross, Liam; Invitation & Escape, The Architecture of Fire Safety Regulation
- Lennon, T. (2015) Compartment sizes – are they still fit for purpose? Presentation given at BRE fire conference 2015, available from: http://www.bre.co.uk/filelibrary/ Fire%20Research%20Conference%202015/4-BRE-Fire-Conf-2015
- The Centre for International Economics (2012), Benefits of building regulation reform, available from www.TheCIE.com.au
- Parliament of NSW (2002), Joint Select Committee on the Quality of Buildings, Report on the Quality of Buildings
- Shergold, P and Weir, B. (2018). Building Confidence. Improving the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia.