In the wake of London’s Grenfell Tower fire tragedy and Melbourne’s Lacrosse Tower, combustible cladding has been identified as a major safety concern for occupants of multi-storey apartment buildings.
The Queensland Building and Construction Commission (QBCC) is at the forefront of the Queensland Government’s effort to ensure building occupant safety is maintained and improved on all private and public buildings.
The QBCC has become aware of an increasing trend to install external shutters or blinds, glazed window enclosures or panel walls to balconies of multi-residential high-rise apartment buildings following practical completion and hand over.
A shutter installation on previously open balcony
While there are some benefits associated with the installation of these items for example increased privacy and shade and weather resistance, there are potentially negative impacts that may arise. Installing external shutters or blinds, glazed windows or panel wall enclosures on balconies of high rise apartments may impede the building’s fire safety and resistance.
All buildings go through a rigorous assessment process by a building certifier at the building development approval stage to ensure compliance with the Building Code of Australia (BCA). To comply with the BCA, buildings are assessed against performance requirements relevant to things such as structure, fire resistance, access and egress, health and amenity, and energy efficiency.
The retro-fitting of external shutter and blind systems, glazed window enclosures or panel walls post construction, which have not been assessed through a building development approval process, could impinge on the building’s performance in several important areas including:
Items such as shutters and blinds may not be made entirely of non-combustible materials and installing these may promote the spread of fire across the external facade of a building and contribute to unacceptable levels of smoke.
Commonly, on multi-storey apartment projects, building designers apply a concept known as “vertical separation”. This limits the spread of fire from one storey to another by utilising the non-combustible properties of concrete. Concrete balcony floor slabs, above one another, act as a barrier to the spread of fire on the outside face of a building.
When an item such as an external shutter or blind, glazed window enclosure or panel wall are added to a building, it may effectively provide a physical bridge between previously separated storeys. If it is manufactured to include combustible material, it will almost certainly promote the spread of fire up the external face of the building.
There are also risks associated with installing items such as shutters and blinds directly above fire exits in any building, if they contain any combustible material.
Falling and flaming debris could render a fire exit unusable in a fire and impede egress from a building. In turn, this may cause an additional hazard to emergency services personnel.
Light and Ventilation
Natural light and natural ventilation is normally required to all habitable rooms in a building. The minimum levels required under the BCA may be impacted by the installation of an external shutter or blind system.
Glazed window enclosures retrofitted to balconies
Items such as blinds and awnings, glazed window enclosures or panel walls incorporated into the exterior of any building are subjected to wind loads. These loads, particularly on a multi-storey apartment building, may be significant and exceed the loads normally experienced at ground level.
The determination of such wind loads on a multi-storey building is a complex task and falls within the professional expertise of a structural engineer to assess. The assessment will include not only potential wind loads, but the suitability of the fixings proposed to be used to secure these items to a building.
The importance of ensuring anything added to the outside of a building is properly engineer designed is paramount. This was highlighted by an incident that occurred in 2009 on the Gold Coast where a person was killed after being hit by a dislodged balcony privacy screen during a severe storm.
Large multi-story apartment buildings would most likely have been the subject of a Planning Approval which ensures, amongst other things, the aesthetics of a building comply with the local authority planning scheme.
The retro-fitting of external shutters and blinds, glazed window enclosures or panel walls may breach the planning requirements and trigger enforcement action by local governments if complaints were received from disgruntled community members or adjoining apartment owners.
In Queensland additions to a completed building such as the installation of external shutters or blinds, glazed window enclosures or panel walls are captured under the definition of “building work” for the purposes of the Building Act 1975and must comply with the BCA.
The enclosing of a balcony with shutters or blinds, glazed window enclosures or panel walls would trigger the requirement for a building development approval and may trigger planning development approval under the relevant planning instrument.
A common misconception by unit owners and contractors installing these products is that approval by a building’s Body Corporate is akin to building approval and all that is required, this misconception needs to be dispelled.
Unless contractors who install external shutters and blinds, window enclosures or panel walls are skilled in understanding and interpreting requirements of the BCA, they may be unwittingly impinging upon the levels of fire safety afforded to occupants of a completed building. They may also be caught up in protracted litigation if an incident were to arise in the future.
QBCC’s message to individual apartment owners and their responsible Body Corporates is that the retro-fitting of items, such as external shutters and blinds, glazed window enclosures or panel walls should be considered best practice only when done in consultation with a building certifier.
Building certifiers conduct a thorough assessment process to ensure that building occupant and public safety is not compromised by the installation of such items.