Have Australians Learned Our Building Compliance Code Lessons?
When reviewing the past, present and future state of building code compliance in Australia, it is difficult to say whether we have learned from past mistakes. Similar challenges, most emphatically exposed by combustible cladding, have been experienced on a global scale. Our public demands that buildings harness innovative technologies to deliver exciting buildings. To push the boundaries of what has gone before and build for a better future. Who wants to use 1970s technology to construct a 1970s building?
Building codes must try to meet expectations for innovation. As a result, codes harness modern technologies to meet the needs of the day. Building codes must set an acceptable level of safety, in recognition that the probability of accidents occurring can be reduced, but not eliminated.
Sustainability and thermal comfort, particularly, are of ever-increasing importance. Especially in Australia, where our building code has lagged behind economically similar countries.
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Performance-based code – where we are now
In Australia, we have a performance-based code. This code is based on the Nordic Fire Level System, developed in Scandinavia in the late 70s. The code seeks to set regulatory goals at the top, with more detail provided as we move down the hierarchy, to examples of accepted solutions at the bottom.
The lower levels of the pyramid have been differently illustrated in the NCC (National Construction Code) to clarify that performance requirements set the accepted level of safety and amenity. There are 3 separate routes to achieve compliance with performance requirements. Namely, a performance solution, a prescriptive deemed to satisfy (DtS) solution or a combination of both. For more information on types of solutions, check out our blog post on Deemed To Satisfy (DtS) Versus Performance Solutions.
Effectively, there should not be a dichotomy between the deemed to satisfy route and the performance route. Indeed, we can and do combine them. However, the DtS route to demonstrate compliance has remained the default way to compliance in Australia. In fact, performance solutions were previously termed “alternative solutions.” They were reserved as a plan B to use if you couldn’t get DtS to work.
This resulted in each siloed step of a recipe being followed in a linear manner. A + B + C = building. Or put another way, you do this, then you do that, which in turn requires you to do this. Once you’ve ticked all the boxes, you are compliant.
From a theoretical standpoint, the performance approach is the reverse. It focuses on a holistic appreciation of the objective. What you want a building to be like, what each component needs to do and how the ABCs are going to fit with each other.
Changes to the NCC 2022, Building Code of Australia
The NCC is going to release updates and changes to the current code in September 2022. In terms of structure, the referencing convention is the largest change. It’s now a section, part, type and clause. So, for those familiar with the previous structure, we’ve got some new jargon to learn.
There have been updates to the prescriptive, deemed to satisfy provisions. In recent years, we’ve seen a need for performance solutions to close gaps in the DtS provisions of modern buildings relating to external walls. These performance solutions address the presence of localised components such as plastic packers, shims and backing rods. This welcome change will reduce unnecessary compliance burdens and reduce costs and time. At the same time, the changes won’t affect acceptable levels of safety.
Governments around the country and the ABCB (Australian Building Codes Board) have looked at ways they can ensure an increase in the industry’s professionalism. As a result, they’ve identified the documentation of performance solutions as an issue that needs addressing. Along with the ABCB’s goal of quantifying performance solutions, this led to proposals initially introduced under what was called ‘A8’. These proposals raised concerns. Industry saw the proposals as highly conservative and radical. It raised the question of why performance solutions required higher levels of scrutiny regarding safety than DtS building design.
Whilst A8 has been pulled, we have seen early signs of risk matrixing introduced with the concept of building complexity. Additionally, there are proposals to increase wheelchair access into homes and potentially to increase thermal requirements. Though we will have to wait until August to see the proposed uplift to thermal standards.
Changes to promote sustainability and energy-efficiency
In the current version of the NCC, the Building Code of Australia (2019 amendment 1) introduced utilising thermal bridging into energy calculations and the ability to perform air tightness testing. (The latter only through a voluntary verification method). This can only lead to more sustainable, energy-efficient buildings. However, these steps alone will not solve condensation issues and if applied incorrectly, can exacerbate them.
Assessing the risk at hand
Changes are happening to increase the standard for more sustainable and risk-averse buildings. Dan O’Brien, CEO of Cladding Safety Victoria, spoke recently about the work his team are doing to risk profile buildings undergoing cladding remediation. The ABCB are also looking at risk assessments becoming part of the NCC 2025.
Today, performance is too often used to fix a problem or reduce costs when people have already set out on a prescriptive route to compliance.
This highlights the need for an Australian framework of building control that encourages and incentivises increased levels of safety. A framework that does not focus on building compliance in terms of siloed elements. But instead utilises fire engineering and BCA expertise in a holistic sense.
We’re not there yet, but we will be. In the meantime, there remain opportunities through our current framework to provide better, safer and more efficient buildings that don’t need to come at a premium.
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