A University of Otago passive fire guide is transforming construction practices around keeping people safe while they flee burning buildings and fight the fires. As more high-profile organisations adopt the guide nationally, will building owners and fire engineers beat passive fire regulators to the punch by setting the country’s benchmark for installing and maintaining fire separation walls, floors and ceilings?
Despite being created as an in-house document to apply across the University’s campus, the University of Otago Passive Fire Guide is now being used by eight high-profile building owners and is on its way to becoming a new industry standard. Written by Beca Chartered Fire Engineer, Greg North, and the University’s Property Services Division Building Compliance Manager, Rob Wilks, the guide has raised the bar within the industry relating to the quality of installations and is already influencing contractor training throughout the country.
From small beginnings
When Wilks received an independent passive fire compliance audit of the University of Otago’s buildings, he had no idea of the size of the can of worms he was opening. The audit reported deficiencies in several fire separations focusing on fire and smoke stopping. Wilks was concerned, but not particularly surprised, as a number of national and international building surveys in the past decade had found similar results. The shock set in when he started talking to contractors about getting the fire separations up to scratch.
“After several conversations I had this ballooning realisation: when it came to installing and maintaining passive fire separations, no one in the industry was following a robust methodology for the design and installation of fire and smoke stopping products. There was typically a poor understanding of the requirements for maintaining the performance of fire separations when services are passed through them.”
The unregulated corner of New Zealand’s fire safety world
Ironically, whilst New Zealand has robust regulation for active fire protection features (e.g.: sprinklers, fire alarms and fire extinguishers), the installation and maintenance of passive fire separations has no such regulation. Yes, the building materials are thoroughly tested under rigorous, standardised fire conditions – as you can see on the left, where several hundred degrees of heat are being contained impressively behind this glazed wall.
And, these tested materials are being installed in new or refurbished buildings as required by the New Zealand Building Code.
So far so good.
But then the wheels often fall off due to poor training or competency on how to install and maintain the range of passive fire products on the market that have been installed in various buildings. While there are some well qualified operators out there, it isn’t a standard we observe across the industry.
And that’s a big problem, because often, contractors damage fire-rated walls, ceilings or floors while undertaking their building work – limiting the structure’s ability to hold back fire for as long as the regulations demand.
The power of fire separations
Image courtesy of Durasteel.
What has led to these issues in the New Zealand fire and smoke stopping industry?
Undertaking fire and smoke stopping installations is a specialism within the building industry. Doing the job well depends on understanding a wide range of product and building design issues.
Where are the building’s fire separations? Is the fire separation a wall, floor or ceiling? What size is the fire separation? What’s it made of? How many construction layers does it have? Does the proposed fire sealant or collar system actually work on the materials found within the building? Does the fire separation require a special method of construction and are a combination of different products required altogether to correctly complete the installation?
Furthermore, each scenario requires the designer and installer to fully understand the limitations of the products they’re planning to use. Unbelievably, Wilks discovered, many product labels often don’t specify exactly how or where the products can and should be used, nor how they’ll perform in a fire.
As he sat down to put together guidelines for University contractors, he quickly understood why the United States and Europe have entire organisations dedicated to ensuring passive fire protection measures are robust.
This was not going to be something Wilks could complete on his own in his spare time. It was time to contact Beca.
A guide is born
Developing the University of Otago Passive Fire Guide was a significant undertaking for Wilks and North.
Based on extensive research, the guide provides a methodology for designers and installers of fire and smoke stopping solutions, including how to choose the right product and install it correctly. The guide also clearly states what needs to be done to meet the University’s own requirements, in excess of the minimum requirements of the Building Act.
The guide includes practical requirements, such as labelling each installation and stencilling fire separation details on the walls, so to assist the future maintenance and alteration of the building. Section 2 provides a product register to help the designer review possible solutions. And Section 3 offers solutions for some relatively common fire-stopping situations on campus to assist contractors doing minor and repetitive installations.
Throughout its development, the guide was peer-reviewed by senior fire engineers at Beca. After Version 1 was issued in early 2015, the benefits to building owners became clear and word on the guide spread.
As a result, it’s now being used by eight more building owners, including: the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, Auckland District Health Board, Waikato District Health Board, Southern District Health Board, and Mercy Hospital in Dunedin.
Since the University of Otago started using the guide across campus, the need for re-work of new fire and smoke stopping installations dropped massively to about 5% of the level observed before the guide.
“It’s been really interesting to watch the change. Local contractors have pulled their socks up, the cowboys have given up and specialists are emerging,” says Wilks. “In Dunedin, the guide has encouraged a new industry with the appropriate levels of skill and performance to meet the requirements of the Building Code.”
North was invited to join the Fire Protection Association (FPA) Special Interest Group which is looking at introducing specific education about passive fire measures – based in part on the University’s guide – for apprentices in a range of trades, including electrical, plumbing and construction. The association has also taken up the battle for definitive instructions on how each product should be used and is starting to create its own product register similar to Section 2 of the guide.
A precursor to standards?
Wilks and North hope industry education will eventually catch up with the guide. “The construction industry is like a big boat – it’s slow to change direction. However, with the guide, we’ve been able to set some best-practice guidelines, get it out there and get the industry behind it,” says Wilks.
The guide has already lifted fire safety standards in many New Zealand buildings and looks set to influence the fire-stopping industry nationwide.
From North and Wilks’ determination to make the University’s buildings safe – new guidelines, new advice and a whole new industry are emerging that will improve the level of safety within buildings across the country for generations to come.
Free guide for building owners and contractors
For a free copy of the guide, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
What do you need to know about passive fire protection in your building?
Guide author and Beca Chartered Fire Engineer, Greg North, offers the following advice:
1. Find out the location of your fire and smoke separations (walls/floors/ceilings) and their required performance ratings
“This is a minimum requirement. Everyone should know where their fire and smoke separations are and the performance they are designed to achieve. This is not as much of an issue in a new building as this should be detailed within the consent documentation. However, the older a building gets, the harder it will likely be to find complete and accurate information. If you don’t have the drawings or are worried about compliance, call in a Chartered Fire Engineer to map the location of your fire and smoke separations and check their compliance.”
2. Document this information on a plan
“Soon, this is likely to be mandated by the Building Code, but for the safety of everyone in your building, you need to create your fire and smoke separation plan now.”
3. Give the plan to your IQP, your contractors and the people who hire contractors
“Give your plan to your Independent Qualified Person (IQP), so they know what they’re inspecting as part of ‘Building Warrant of Fitness’ obligations. All fire and smoke separations are expected to be regularly inspected by an IQP and signed off as compliant each year as part of the Building Warrant of Fitness regime. If you’re renovating or expanding, you should get a Chartered Fire Engineer to view the plan and inspect these elements as part of the design stage.
4. Assign responsibility to your contractors
“Whenever fit-out or repair work is being done in your building, make it the contractual responsibility of the person doing the work to be aware of passive fire protection requirements for the building and be competent to address these in a satisfactory way.”
5. Use the guide
“Give your contractors the guide and require them to use it.”