John? Rakic.

A major change to the National Construction Code could lead to some builders and developers finding they no longer comply with fire safety rules, unless they begin using passive fire protection systems that are tested to the latest standards.

From 1 September, all new buildings will need to have passive fire safety systems with a fire resistance level (FRL) that complies with the latest Australian fire test standards, known as AS1530 Part 4 – 2014.

Passive fire protection systems are vitally important, because they are designed to limit the spread of a fire to one compartment, “or fire zone”, of a building. In the event of a fire, this allows people in other fire compartments to exit safely and firefighters to enter.

The products that make up these compartments, including walls, shafts, floors, ceilings, doors and service penetrations (such as ductwork, electrical and data cables, plumbing and airconditioning pipes) need to be tested to determine their fire resistance level.

Alarmingly, a loophole that existed prior to the 2019 revision of the NCC, meant there was no requirement for products (or assemblies) to be retested as fire testing standards were updated to become more stringent. 

This “grandfather clause” effectively meant that the fire safety test reports and data for building products were rated based on the fire safety test standards from when those products were first released, rather than the most recent standards.

Passive fire safety expert John? Rakic, who owns Trafalgar Group, told The Fifth Estate the clause had some perverse consequences, including that it stopped product innovation. 

“If you were lucky enough to have your product tested in the 80s or 90s, you could sell that product. But if you have a new product … you would have to test it to the latest test method,” he said.

“The requirements have improved so much over time that what you would develop would be too expensive, so no one was doing any innovation.”

That loophole was closed in the 2019 update to the NCC, which said in three years time, the whole of industry must retest or test everything to the latest test method.

“The big catalyst was post Grenfell, where [regulators] said, ‘well, let’s have a look at fire safety in this country’.”

The change comes into force on 1 September, when all new apartments (and other class two buildings) will need to have passive fire safety systems that are tested to the latest standards.

For its part, Trafalgar has published a series of training videos about the changes on its website, along with technical manuals for product systems and applications, covering data sheets, installation guides, and FRL tables.

“So now, at least for passive fire protection, by containment by barriers, we’re going to have products tested to modern day requirements that are accepted globally as being safe,” Mr Rakic said. 

In NSW, David Chandler is watching

While the change is important to developers across Australia, it has particular salience to developers and property owners in NSW.

Every year on that annual anniversary of a residential building being given a certificate of occupancy, the building owner (or a nominated representative), has to get a pink slip to say that the building’s still safe. It’s somewhat like the process for roadworthy certifications for cars.

“You have to send that into the council or the fire brigade. If you don’t, they’ll come out to inspect you and give you a fire order,” Mr Rakic said.

The need to get up to date with the passive fire rule changes has an added urgency, due the NSW Design and Building Practitioners Act 2020 and the Design and Building Practitioners Regulation 2021.

“Unless you’ve got detailed design now, which shows the products you use and how you put them in meets current Australian standards for waterproofing and fire protection, they will not issue you a construction certificate. You can’t start the civil works and start digging out the basement,” Mr Rakic said.

NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler is likely to be monitoring compliance with the new fire safety rules closely.

“I know for a fact that there are a number of prominent builders, big builders, that are stuck now where for the first time they can’t start construction because their construction certificate has been put on hold until they tidy up the detailed design,” Mr Rakic said.

“At least in New South Wales, as a starting point, they’ve got to do detailed design and needs to be checked before they start. And hopefully the certifiers now know that they’ll get struck off if they don’t approve buildings right. They’re gonna check it.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.