Anyone who is involved in building design and construction has a very significant part to play in people’s daily lives.
Beyond ensuring sustainability, luxury design and practicality, the job of those involved in any element of a building’s construction is to eliminate the risk of injury or death to those using the building.
Fire, is one of those risks. As recent as September 2014, a residential tower block in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, went up in flames when a fire in a lower floor
apartment spread upwards, engulfing half of the buildings left side in a matter of minutes.
This is an extreme, but in no way unrealistic example of what can happen when a buildings fire protection fails and a fire in one area is unable to be managed by the structural elements and components fitted to the building.
For Brendan Kennedy, managing director of Smoke Control, this is an issue he has been trying to flag to Australia’s Sprinkler Industry since 2003, when Evaluation Report ESR-2397 for special-purpose sprinkler systems used with fixed glass assemblies was put in place, to provide an alternative to a fire rated wall assembly. Firstly, this system can only be used as an Alternative Solution under Australia’s National Construction Code when used to replace any fire rated wall, it is NOT and never will be a deemed-to-satisfy solution for replacing fire rated walls.
The problem with the intended use of the sprinklers as fire protection was that in order for the sprinkler systems to work as designed; there were a number of limitations -not so obviously spelled out- that needed to be adhered too. Limitations that in real life, would be near impossible to control.
The criteria was withdrawn in 2011 following an investigation by US code officials who stated that the concept was “fundamentally flawed” and that the systems as installed, could not possibly function as intended under many credible fire scenarios.
After technical review of the original withdrawn document, a new Evaluation Report for ESR-2397, for the use of sprinklers on glass walls in lieu of a fire rated wall assembly, was reissued in 2014 with heavy limitations on the use of the systems so as to avoid any convenient misinterpretations- as was the problem with the initial Evaluation Report ESR-2397. This issue is not isolated to Australia only. In the USA for example the 2012 International Building Code now clarifies that fire ratings must be established based solely on a material’s own performance. According to section 703.4, “the fire-resistance rating of a building element, component or assembly shall be established without the use of automatic sprinklers or any other fire suppression system.”
So what about the thousands of ”fundamentally flawed” sprinkler systems currently installed in buildings? The sprinkler industry –and its multi-million dollar companies- have remained reasonably tight lipped about the withdrawal of the original certification and its amendments, so it is likely that most building owners don’t realise these changes have occurred. Mr Kennedy, mechanical and fire safety engineer with more than 18 years’ experience in the industry says, “The commercial impact of the new evaluation report is significant. While it prevents the cutting of corners and clearly identifies the requirements to Building Certifiers and Fire Services, the capital cost of the system will increase and the architectural benefits will significantly decrease. Building owners, insurers, managers, specifiers, designers, certifiers and most importantly- employers, should all review their obligations under the Building Code and WHS regulations to ensure that they are not exposed to potential litigation in the case of a fire” he said.
When a fire starts to burn... As discussed in a document pertaining to the 2014 revisions of AC385, the notion of multiple safeguards and balanced fire protection is not new to building codes. It has long been a basic tenet that the design of every building intended for human occupancy, shall be such that reliance for safety to life does not depend solely on any single safeguard. The reason behind the withdrawal of the Evaluation Criteria ESR-2397 was simply based on the fact that if for some reason the sprinklers do not control the fire, then the water supply has been overwhelmed and there is not adequate water available to supply these sprinklers. In any conditions, other than the limitations outlined in the 2014 issue of ESR-2397, direct flame impingement will cause the glass to shatter and the sprinkler system –only able to activate in one area- will fail to challenge the spread of fire.
Insurance and liability There are many authors who in the past have challenged the logic of the original code, questioning its limitations in real life scenarios and commenting that there are too many conditions that must operate perfectly for the system to work.
Should a sprinkler fail, or the sprinkler/glass wall system installed is not strictly in line with the conditions (as required in the report), then your building is likely to allow fire to spread through multiple compartments – similar to that which occurred in Russia, severely hindering egress from the building as planned in the Fire Engineers Report. Whether you are an architect, certifier, building owner or employer, should an incident occur and your building is found to be non-compliant pertaining to the use of sprinklers protecting a glazed wall, you may be held liable.
In the case of a fire, damage, death or injury, should an investigation determine that the affected area did not comply with Australian Building Codes and Standards; your insurance may be void. As the current issue stands, many insurers would not offer insurance on a building that has sprinkler/ glass wall systems installed that do not fall within the limitations now clearly spelled out in ESR-2397 as it may be considered non-compliant.
What you should be aware of Sprinklers are a multi-billion dollar industry with commercial systems costing anywhere between $400,000, to $15 million. Any changes to legislation pertaining to the installation of such systems can potentially lead to lost business. Due to issues raised here, it is likely that some will refer to the Canadian journal to justify the use of a sprinkler on glass, system. According to Kennedy, this data is invalid for the following reasons: 1- While the (Canadian) report states that the test was a positive pressure test, testing parameters were not carried out as we (in Australia) require under AS1530.4, and there is no attempt made to address the effect of these differences. 2- The report does not detail how to install the glass wall as tested. Items like glass clearances to the frame (for thermal expansion clearances), coverage area for the beading and the fixing method (so the glass won’t slump out of the frame) and many other issues that go with Fire Testing a Prototype glass wall are not given in the report. 3- There are no doors tested in the system. To date, there is no technical justification or ‘engineering judgement’ that can justify the use of fire doors in sprinklered glass walls. The 2014 reissue of ESR-2397 (AC385) prohibits the use of ANY openings.
Solution: Smoke Control have been fighting this issue for many years, investing heavily in the research and development of alternative solutions for the construction industry. To date, they are one of the only businesses to have engineered a range of fire protected glazing systems that do not require the installation of a sprinkler system when installed correctly. VisioneeringTM by Smoke Control has the capacity to save developers, building owners and employers looking to replace sprinkler/glass wall systems, a signi cant amount of money. When installed as part of a complete system, including size of glass, frame, gaskets, hardware, fixings, and perimeter sealant, the Visioneering SmokeGlazeTM Frameless Glazing Systems achieve the specified fire resistance level when fire tested in accordance with AS1530.4 for both deemed-to-satisfy and Alternative Solutions. VisioneeringTM gives architects and designer’s freedom of design and one of the only floor-to-ceiling glazed system, whilst also ensuring any combination of fire, smoke, sound, energy, light and security requirements are met.
If you are interested in finding out more information on the above, or should you be concerned about any of the issues raised, please contact Australian Fire Control 9399 6957 or Sales@AustralianFireControl.com.au
REFERENCES 1 Lachlan Williams, Ninemsn, ‘Twenty- ve storey apartment block burns in minutes’, September 22, 2014, http://www.9news.com.au/ world/2014/09/22/12/00/25-storey-apartment-block-catches- re-in-mintues 2 TGP, ‘Frequently asked questions about re-rated glass and framing’, http://www. reglass.com/faq/ 3 ICC Evaluation Service, May 4, 2011, http://www.icc-es.org/Criteria_Development/1106-pre/22_AC385.pdf 4 Jerry Razwick, Glass on Web, ‘Extinguishing the Myths of Fires, Sprinklers and Glass’, 2008, http://www.glassonweb.com/articles/ article/505/ 5 Insurance Council of Australia, ‘Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS 2009-01), 2009, http://www.insurancecouncil.com.au/ assets/submission/archive/consultation%20regulatory%20impact%20statement%20090309.pdf AB&R,