New Zealand's apartment fire regulations 'best in the world' - but too many apartment blocks have cut corners
A lack of "passive" fire-stop measures and lazy building managers are a worse risk to New Zealand apartments than risky cladding, experts say.
The head of the Home Owners Buyers Association says too many apartment buildings have been built without basic fire safety measures.
If there was a fire, some blocks would become a "massive chimney running from the bottom to the top of the building through which smoke, fumes and fire can travel."
And a building management company sees too many cases of fire exits and fire doors being blocked or not maintained by the live-in building managers.
"People get lazy over time if that sort of thing is not watched and policed fairly closely," said Chris Laycock.
The renewed focus on fire risk comes after the London Grenfell tower blaze. Auckland Council said last week that two apartments in Auckland were found to have combustible aluminium cladding.
The search in Auckland for blocks with similar cladding actually started before the tragedy at Grenfell towers - it dates back to the Lacrosse apartment fire in Melbourne at the end of 2014.
With no records of matching cladding types available to officials Council employees were forced to drive around and physically search Auckland's suburbs for buildings that looked like they might have similar cladding.
Property developers and owners in Wellington seem confident a similar situation does not exist in the capital.
Well-known Wellington developer Maurice Clark said he did not know of any residential buildings in the capital that used aluminium composite cladding but said there was "a fair amount" on commercial buildings.
"Usually that was put in during the days when there were significant firebreaks from floor to floor, much greater than required by code."
Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean said soon after the London fire that he was "confident we don't have similar materials on our buildings".
Auckland Council's general manager of building control Ian McCormick said "combustible cladding" material had been in use for 10-15 years and was approved for use in multi-storey buildings as long as there were other safety measures in place.
Those included "passive fire safety" measures designed to slow the spread of fire between apartments and active fire measures such as sprinklers.
But is those passive measures that have raised worries.
'MASSIVE CHIMNEYS' INSIDE APARTMENT BUILDINGS
Passive fire measures designed to slow the spread of fire in apartment buildings include walls between units constructed of fire-rated materials and other devices designed to give occupants half an hour or more to exit their apartment.
John Gray of the Home Owners Buyers Association of New Zealand said these measures, are the real issue when it comes to fire risk in apartment buildings like Grenfell.
“The issue that’s been the focus of the media attention so far, and just from New Zealanders in general, is the cladding system and whether or not that cladding has been used in New Zealand,
"We understand that it has been used in New Zealand but to what extent no one actually knows.”
"The cladding issue, whilst it's pretty serious, and it made that fire look pretty spectacular, the big issue is there was a fire in that complex and there was a lack of passive fire systems obviously."
The Building Code requires buildings over 10m tall to be designed and constructed so that there is a "low probability" of fire spreading vertically.
This involves putting 'fire pillows', materials resistant to fire, in the shafts of buildings to prevent oxygen travelling between floors and further fuelling it.
Apartment buildings Gray has examined, through his work on buildings with weathertightness issues, were missing these pillows.
"You've got this massive chimney running from the bottom to the top of the building through which smoke, fumes and fire can travel, or a fire at the top of the building could suck air from."
The PVC pipes in apartment buildings that deliver water and sewage between floors can also melt in a fire leaving another large shaft through which oxygen can travel.
Fire collars were meant to be placed around these pipes, these expand when the PVC melts shutting off airflow between floors, but Gray says these too were "missing completely" from apartment buildings he had examined.
Other buildings had non-fire rated walls when fire-rated walls were required in the plans, all had been signed off by fire engineers and building inspectors.
"We can't understand why they were ever missed by the building inspectors at the time."
"In 100 per cent of those buildings that we have been working with the owners they have been found to be deficient in relation to passive fire protection."
"That's not just a mistake, or an error, or a woops I forgot, it was a deliberate willful act which resulted in these buildings being built without those fire protections."
"Because why? It was cheaper not to do it."
Gray said he had made a presentation to members of the Fire Service in his office, expressing "grave concerns" about the safety of firefighters in these buildings.
"They’re going to burn-out and collapse much quicker than you’ve ever imagined."
But McCormick said passive fire protection measures that were not up to code were "harder to see once the building is constructed" and in his experience the lapses were caused by ignorance rather than wilful negligence.
"Someone runs a cable in, someone decides to get SKY or whatever, so they drill a hole through a fire-rated wall, maybe contractors don't think about these things."
He described New Zealand's fire regulations and standards as some of "the best in the world" and said New Zealand had more buildings with sprinkler systems, proportionally, than any other country.
Gray said he had no problem with the regulations, just their enforcement in the past, and thought newer buildings were less likely to have hidden gaps in their fire protection.
“Our problem at the moment now is we’ve got all these legacy buildings.”
“How do we find out how many of them are similarly affected to the ones we have seen?”
McCormick says it's not the "peer-reviewed" fire systems but the day-to-day management of such buildings that is "one of the greatest causes of concern" for Auckland Council.
"Are there combustible materials that are being left in fire exit, egress, areas? Are people parking cars across fire doors?
"Are the fire safety doors that are designed to be shut, being left open or propped open?"
Chris Laycock, Manager at Constant Building Management in Auckland, says his staff are trained by compliance professionals to go through apartment buildings every day checking fire exits are clear, fire doors are working and smoke seals are in place.
"People get lazy over time if that sort of thing is not watched and policed fairly closely.”
Asked if daily checks were common throughout the industry, he had a one word answer: "No".
"There's still a fair few people in the industry who take building management roles on as a retirement job,
"They tend to be older guys, they tend to be ex-moteliers, ex-tradesmen, and we quite often take these buildings over from these people."
Some buildings, Laycock said, had junk stored in their fire escapes, fire seals not in place, and fire doors that didn't close, all things that "shouldn't get through" a Building Warrant of Fitness Check.
"That's the first thing we put in place when we takeover a building."
Part of the problem was anyone can become a building manager, Laycock said, there are no qualifications or licensing requirements for the role,
Formal training in fire compliance issues would be the best thing that could "raise the standard", according to Laycock.
"There's no industry regulation on it, that's sort of how it creeps in."
THE ISSUES WITH CLADDING
The cladding at the centre of investigations following the London fire are Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) which, when used, were often applied to the outside of buildings as a design feature because the aluminium sheets could be easily painted over.
McCormick said the public should think of the panels as an "aluminium sandwich". A composite material sandwiched between two sheets of aluminium.
A guide released by MBIE in May 2016 noted that in a fire the aluminium sheets would heat up and "conduct quickly" to the core composite material.
If the core was polyethylene, for example, it would melt quickly, bending the aluminium back and exposing the polyethylene to flames, a problem because polyethylene "combusts vigorously".
"ACP claddings with a 100% PE (polyethylene) core have contributed to rapid and extensive vertical fire spread."
MBIE advice noted that Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) with a core of polyethylene (PE) had been a factor in large apartment fires in both Melbourne and Dubai.
As part of the building code, the external cladding of buildings must be designed so that a fire does not spread more than 3.5m vertically.
Soon after the Grenfell fire, Building and Construction Minister Nick Smith pointed to an amendment to the building code in January where flammable aluminium cladding had been banned from multi-storey buildings and said he had instructed Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment officials to contact councils to check if any such buildings had been constructed before the ban.