Keeping our homes safe from fire has been an age-old battle for humanity, ever since humans started building shelters with fire pits inside over 40,000 years ago.
But in the mid-2000s, the rules of this battle changed when a terrifying new type of building fire engulfed multiple skyscrapers around the world.
These fires were unique in the way they spread rapidly across the outside of the buildings. They badly damaged buildings in France, the US and the United Arab Emirates, and were seen in Australia for the first time in 2014 when the Lacrosse building in Melbourne went up in flames, causing an estimated $24 million in damages.
Then, in 2017, the Grenfell Tower disaster in the UK brought the problem to the world’s attention, with 24 storeys burned, 72 people killed, and 70 others injured.
From the ashes of this catastrophe, the cause of the fires finally came into focus.
Each of the fire-ravaged buildings was covered in a particular type of metal composite outer shell, known as ‘cladding’. Shockingly, it was discovered that these outer panels – used to insulate or decorate the buildings – could be highly flammable.
Reacting quickly to the news, the Australian state governments launched audits to document the existence of potentially flammable cladding on buildings across the country.
“The audits indicated there could be thousands of buildings with flammable cladding materials in their façades,” explains Dr Juan Hidalgo, Senior Lecturer in Timber and Fire Safety Engineering at UQ.
“These buildings could pose a high fire risk not just to occupants and fire and emergency services personnel who need to operate in those buildings, but also to neighbouring structures.”
While the audits made good headway in identifying which Australian buildings had cladding, the true fire risk still remained unclear.
The Grenfell disaster showed that some cladding panels made of aluminium composite could easily sustain and spread flames. But what about the other types of cladding covering our homes and public buildings? Were they a fire risk too?
Addressing the cladding crisis
To answer these critical questions, Queensland’s cladding taskforce turned to UQ’s Fire Safety Engineering Research Group for their expert technical advice.
With seven dedicated staff and over 20 higher degree by research students at the forefront of fire safety engineering research, as well as a state-of-the-art fire science lab at UQ’s St Lucia campus, the group was perfectly poised for action.
But, the researchers anticipated a problem.
“We quickly realised that the testing being proposed to assess the flammability of cladding was insufficient,” Dr Hidalgo says.
“The current standard was a simple test to identify what materials the cladding was made of, and a pass/fail flammability test. This tells engineers very little about the real fire risk of the materials they were assessing."
Another problem was that the early testing proposed around Australia only focused on aluminium composite panels with polyethylene cores, similar to those that had caused the Grenfell fire to be so catastrophic.
“This is not sufficient as building facades consist of multiple different products and materials," Dr Hidalgo explains.
“A holistic fire safety engineering approach should look at all the elements, and the way they interact together as a full building structure.”
To address the issues, UQ Fire devised a new framework to help people identify the flammability of different cladding materials. The testing framework was based on renown analytical and fire testing methods widely used in the fire engineering and scientific communities.
With seven separate tests, it allowed a thorough characterisation of the flammability of building façade materials. This included screening tests to determine the basic fingerprint of the materials using chemical and thermal composition analyses. These detailed testing methods allowed a better understanding of the flammability – that is, how these materials ignite, burn and spread the flame.
Then, it was time to set a lot of things on fire.
School of Civil Engineering Research Fellow Dr Martyn McLaggan (far left) performing a compartment fire experiment with Master of Engineering Science graduate Andy Wong, Fire Safety Engineering PhD student Hons Wyn and Bachelor of Civil Engineering graduate Tam Do. Image: Judit Losh.
Master of Engineering Science graduate Andy Wong performing a compartment fire experiment. Image: Judit Losh.
Over nearly 12 months, the team subjected 1095 samples of different cladding materials identified in the audit to their rigorous screening tests.
Dr Hidalgo says the team intended the testing of this huge inventory of cladding materials to serve a dual purpose.
“It was UQ Fire’s job to analyse the materials from public buildings, but we knew the products we analysed would later be encountered in the private sector,” Dr Hidalgo says.
Former Bachelor of Civil Engineering student Janal Numapo tests materials for the Cladding Materials Library in the fire safety engineering testing facility at UQ's St Lucia campus.
“So, we economised the problem. With the support of the Department of Housing and Public Works, we created a database that would be publicly available to all engineers, not only in Queensland, but across Australia and globally.
“We wanted to take the opportunity to provide more to the community and to try and improve the system. The database provides a tool to empower fire engineers.”
The Cladding Materials Library was launched by UQ in July 2019. Since then, nearly 2000 users have registered from 98 countries around the world.
Still more to do
While the assessment of public buildings is complete, private engineers are now in the process of assessing the cladding fire risks in private homes and businesses.
“Across Australia, this will be thousands of buildings. It’s a really big issue,” Dr Hidalgo says.
UQ Fire is partnering with the private sector as they move forward with this task.
“At the moment, we’re engaging with private engineers who are finding new cladding products in their survey of private buildings.
School of Engineering Research Fellow Dr Martyn McLaggan tests materials for the Cladding Materials Library in the fire safety engineering testing facility at UQ's St Lucia campus.
“The deal we have is that UQ Fire tests these new materials as a commercial test for the industry, but the data is donated to the public database for the benefit of the whole community.”
Dr Hidalgo says for real change to happen, the manufacturers of the cladding products need to become part of the conversation.
“Some are reluctant to get into this conversation, but many others want to include their products in the Cladding Materials Library and develop further research to improve the safety of cladding,” he says.
“They realise if more testing is done and the data is made available, the more trust there will be in the community. This is a very important solution to promote safer products."
UQ Research Scholar Mateo Gutierrez testing materials at UQ's Fire Lab. Image: Genevieve Worrell.
Testing materials at UQ's Fire Lab. Image: Genevieve Worrell.
Fixing systemic flaws in the fire safety industry
While we now have a much better understanding of which buildings are more at risk of catching fire, the question remains: how did fire safety engineers allow us to end up with flammable materials wrapped around our homes and hospitals in the first place?
The answer is complex, but Dr David Lange, a Senior Lecturer in Structural Fire Engineering and a key member of the UQ Fire team, says it points to systemic problems in the professional standards of fire engineering.
Specifically, vague regulations meant that, as a non-structural part of building design, cladding was not required to undergo flammability tests like all other building materials.
Compounding this loophole, Dr Lange says, is the fact that many fire safety engineers are not sufficiently trained to recognise the risks this could cause.
That’s why the UQ Fire team is working hard to arm fire engineers with the tools they need to deal with the pressing issue of cladding.
“We developed an intensive five-day course to upskill fire engineers so they can use the database to effectively assess risk and provide solutions for all the private buildings,” Dr Lange says.
Dr Lange believes the issue of professional standards in fire engineering extends far beyond cladding, however, and three major changes are needed to better protect us from building fires, not just in Australia, but worldwide.
So, what is being done?
For the last two years, UQ Fire has been working with Sydney-based think tank The Warren Centre to identify the gaps in fire safety professional practice and develop a plan for national change.
To tackle these issues on a global scale, in 2019 the UQ Fire group joined with four other leading institutions to form the International Fire Safety Consortium.
The Consortium gathers together partner universities including The University of Edinburgh (Scotland), The University of Maryland (USA), Lund University (Sweden), and The University of Melbourne and UQ (Australia).
The entrance to Grenfell Tower in West London after the fire. Image: Getty Images
Dr Lange says collaboration is essential, as no one university has the capacity to address all facets of fire safety.
“Fire safety is a very complex discipline. It involves a lot of sub-disciplines and gathers together many technical and social fields,” he says.
“The idea of the Consortium was to gather these world leaders in research and education of fire safety, to allow us to tackle the big issues in fire safety in a more holistic and complete way than was possible on our own.”
In doing so, the group hopes to develop solutions that will prevent another disaster like Grenfell.
To learn more about how UQ is leading fire safety engineering research and education, visit the UQ Fire Safety Engineering website.
Dr Juan Hidalgo Medina
School of Civil Engineering
Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology
Phone: +61 7 336 53838
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WORDS Harriet Dempsey-Jones
EDITOR Stacey King
LAYOUT AND DESIGN Michael Jones
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