In November of last year, 13 floors of an apartment building at Melbourne’s Docklands were rapidly destroyed in a blaze originating from a discarded cigarette.
The fire spread from an eighth-floor balcony to the top of the 23-storey building within minutes, leading to a mass evacuation. Tenants were unharmed, but with an estimated $5,000,000 in damages and more than 120 firefighters on the scene, the blaze proved a costly exercise in the dangers of non-compliance.
Though the apartments were fitted with fire sprinklers and smoke alarms as a visible concession to fire safety, the extent of the damage was attributed to a structural fault within the building itself. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s report found that combustible elements in the building’s external cladding, which failed to meet compliance with the National Construction Code (NCC), contributed to the reach and speed of the flames.
Following the incident, the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) began an audit of cladding on a range of high-rise buildings in Melbourne, publishing its findings online. As a state regulatory body, the VBA works to maintain a professional standard across the local building and plumbing industries, and to ensure that consumers who are engaging are adequately informed.
Codes set in the NCC ensure the safety and security of those who work or live within a building. These are continually adapted by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) to reflect current findings and nuances in practice, and as the Docklands apartment building fire dramatically demonstrates, it is the professional duty of built environment experts to maintain a functional awareness of Australian standards and codes and their specific application to various projects.
A 2013 survey by the ABCB found that more education and training was required in the use of the NCC. To this end, efforts to make codes more interactive and digestible have been made – moving the NCC away from a printed format to digital, and through explanatory videos readily accessible online.
Compliance is developed with regards to not just safety standards, but risk prevention. In light of the devastation of incidents such as the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, and 2011 flooding in Brisbane and Queensland, the ABCB has also developed handbooks to supplement the code, to address the additional considerations of building in disaster-prone areas. Among these are guidelines on the design and construction of community bushfire refuges (2014), and the construction of buildings in flood hazard areas.