Home builders now have an approved roof system for use in the highest fire hazard areas in Victoria

by Robyn Short

– 23 July 2009 – The Victorian Building Commission has announced a new roofing systems that meet standards for Victoria’s most hazardous fire zones.

Acting building commissioner, Sarah McCann-Bartlett, made the announcement today following months of testing.

“We are pleased to have new roofing systems that meet the rigorous testing under the new Standard. It will give people the confidence of knowing that the new roofing system they choose is suitable for those areas that have been assessed as BAL-FZ ,[rated the highest in bushfire risk],  Ms McCann-Bartlett said.

Development of the roof systems was jointly funded by Forest and Wood Products Australia Limited, BlueScope Steel Ltd and Promat Australia Pty Ltd.

It involved a cooperative approach to overcome the challenges associated with the design of construction systems that meet the requirements of the most extreme bushfire attack level under the new Standard, Ms McCann-Bartlett said.

The announcement represents the latest building breakthrough for residential materials providers working to test materials for fire resistant housing in bushfire-prone areas in Victoria.

Bluescope Steel Technology corporate brand manager, Michael Reay,  said the company had commissioned work on various composites of steel cladding, glass fibre insulation and fibre cement fire panels.

The Master Builders Association of Victoria said there had been a lack of roofing products ready to meet the new standards.

However, even before the roofing system breakthrough, the Building Commission had said the State’s building permit process would ensure the fire testing of roofing materials for use in the (BAL) FZ zone, would not hamper home owners rebuilding after the February bushfires. Home owners were allowed to submit plans without specific roofing material specifications so manufacturers would have time to complete their fire testing processes.

Meanwhile design for a sustainable building advisory centre at Marysville, one of the Victorian towns ravaged by bushfires in February, is underway.

Anecdotal research shows that not all project builders were choosing to work in affected regions.  Ballarat based steel structure project building company, J G King’s director, Natalie King, told The Fifth Estate that her company, among others, was working on building systems to meet the new fire requirements.

“We are trying to come up with the building technologies to support the new fire zone ratings,” said Ms King.

She described her company as “almost there with the new government regulations for extreme fire zones” and “working to completely comply with the new Government regulations.”

A potential supplier, timber specialist, Tracy Wakefield, founder of Emu Plains based Appalachian Log Homes, which has produced forest log residential structures since the early 1990s, said the Black Saturday tragedy had brought sustainable timber buildings back into the forefront.

Dr Wakefield said long-term testing of the logs, their use in homes in at risk NSW Blue Mountains areas, and testing following release of the new standards, showed the logs as in line with the new Australian Standards.

“We spent a lot of money, have done the latest testing for national compliance, and (the logs) perform very well in fire,” said Dr Wakefield

Australian building standard AS 3959 Construction of Buildings in Bushfire-Prone Areas, was introduced in April. It is understood Victoria’s interim building regulation has a 12 months’ lifespan.

The Australian Institute of Architects Victoria’s Bushfire Homes design service was being provided by architects free of charge to assist people who lost their homes, coordinated by the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects and the Building Commission.

The Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority wss helping to facilitate these services.

Key principles in the design of new hazard conscious housing have the objective of preventing embers and burning debris from entering or alighting on the building, and reducing the combustibility of the building fabric, as well as discouraging the build-up of combustible materials on or near the building.

Homes and buildings at risk of bushfire attack also need to be highly wind resistant, to withstand the extreme winds that often accompany a bushfire, and damage otherwise sound buildings, making them susceptible to ignition.

Types of materials that may be used depend on assessment of the Bushfire Attack Level Code.  There are now six categories for this, taking into account issues such as climate, slope of ground and vegetation.

Ms McCann-Bartlett said the roof system testing was “a great example of industry partners working together for the greater benefit of the Victorian community.

“I understand that a similar collaboration will see additional roofing systems become available in coming weeks.”