In the aftermath of the tragic Grenfell tower inferno, certain sections of the media have come out on the attack against government climate change policies they say are to blame.
As concerning, others are saying the fire is proof tall timber is a bad idea, and there are even those saying Australia has nothing to fear because we have a better building code.
Let’s unpack some of those positions.
1. “Green targets” were behind measures to improve the thermal and energy performance of the building – and if there hadn’t been insulation added, there would not have been a catastrophe
That’s just not true, according to Dr Mary Hardie, director of Academic Programs Construction Management and Building Design at Western Sydney University.
She told The Fifth Estate this week there were plenty of non-flammable insulation products that could have been used for upgrading the performance of the building.
“It makes sense to improve performance of a building, even social housing, because it costs less in energy consumption for the individuals, and it also costs the whole community less in terms of providing additional infrastructure to support energy use.”
In a report at Carbon Brief, the original documents around the planning of the upgrade of the tower were cited. The motivation was clearly not primarily around reducing carbon emissions, it was about addressing the fact the apartments were stifling hot in summer, and leaking warmth in winter, with resulting impacts on occupant health and energy bills.
Reduction in energy use and corresponding carbon emissions reductions were simply a consequence of improving living conditions for the residents – or that was plan.
Dr Hardie said that with a product such as the aluminium cladding responsible for the rapid spread of fire at Lacrosse, Alucobest, it could have been substituted with a similar product, Alucobond, which would have the required level of fire resistance to be compliant with the building code.
Alucobond has a fire-resistant mineral core, similar to the reported alternative product that could have been used at Grenfell.
A choice was made to use a cheaper product, without concern for the degree of flammability or fire spread that might result, Dr Hardie said.
Sounds to us like the result of a “greed agenda”, not a “green agenda”.
2. The fire is proof only masonry should be used for internal walls and tall timber should not be risked for residential buildings
That’s rubbish, Dr Hardie said.
“Timber is quite resistant to fire; it is in some cases more resistant than other materials.
“With the massive timbers, it will char rather than burn. That creates a protective coating of damage so the structural element of it survives.
“A steel frame is more likely to have problems.”
At Grenfell, parts of the ferro-concrete structure were compromised to the extent emergency workers in the recovery effort were reported as saying it was too risky to enter parts of the building until structural engineering measures were carried out.
The reason is that concrete and steel can both be impacted by fire.
“That’s what happened with the World Trade Center,” Dr Hardie said. “The fireproof coatings on the steel were blown off, so it was subject to the fire, and then it distorts.”
She said it was not a matter of whether a material is inherently flammable.
Steel, for example, can lose its strength due to high temperatures, at which point it buckles and there is a progressive collapse of the structure, as was seen at WTC.
“It is a lot more complex than ‘it doesn’t burn’.”
Pre-cast concrete panels, for example, have excellent fire resistance, but the steel connectors can fail in a fire and there is a structural collapse as a result.
Aluminium is fire proof in a sense, but it can be melted in a fire.
Whether any material in a building will perform safely in event of a major fire is a case of both detailed design and building delivery, Dr Hardie said.
“I think people should look for evidence-based solutions to this issue [of performance in event of a fire].
“The quick jump to statements like ‘it’s the insulation’ or ‘only masonry is safe’ is mindless.
“We need to look at the detail of what happened.”
3. It can’t happen here because we have better code rules around fire safety
In the UK it is not mandatory for sprinklers to be fitted for high-rise residential towers, unlike Australia where it required for apartments buildings taller than four storeys. In Victoria, since Lacrosse, it has also become mandatory for sprinklers to be fitted to balconies.
However, just because a sprinkler system has been installed does not mean it will necessarily perform in the event of a fire emergency.
This can be due to a flaw in the original installation, or in commissioning, testing or maintenance, according the Wayne Smith, chief executive of the National Fire Industry Association.
In its October 2016 submission to the VBA’s Building Failure Inquiry, the NFIA pointed out that audits of fire protection systems had shown faults such as sprinkler heads not connected to the water system, pumps lacking batteries that could lead to fail to function in a fire, corroded and leaking pipes that would result in a reduction of water pressure, and parts of a fire protection system design not installed at all yet still certified.
The faults were detected in commercial, retail, healthcare, education and residential buildings.
Where fire protection systems are being reported as non-compliant or poorly performing, as in some of the examples in NFIA’s submission, Mr Smith said it “goes back to who does the work”.
In many states, there is no requirement for people undertaking tasks around maintenance of fire protection systems to hold any formal certification.
“How can we talk about smart buildings of the future when we are not asking for smart, skilled-up tradespeople?”