The Year that Was – 2017

December 18, 2017

Our industry is driven by passion and commitment, and the dedication that so many people have to making people’s lives safer wherever they live and work. New Zealand is a small country, our sector is small and so we are well placed to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges faced by the industry. We are also of course hampered at times by scale. It is not always possible to have the latest and greatest facilities for testing products. We are often reliant on tests carried out for overseas markets which do not take into account the specific needs of the New Zealand construction market. So, we need to be vigilant in how we demonstrate compliance of products and systems.

New president for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers

This year I was elected president of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) NZ Chapter. SFPE is also technical interest group of the recently rebranded Engineering New Zealand which represents the interests of professional fire engineers. SFPE’s by-line is Engineering a fire safe world. This by-line encourages us to consider all facets of fire engineering from the perspectives of tradesmen on the tools, fire fighters in the field, manufacturers of equipment, designers, and professionals and academics alike. At our industry conference this year we were able to yet again marvel at new industry initiatives being introduced, the quality of the equipment and systems available to us, and comprehensive codes of practice for design. This year, 2017, was another hugely busy year for fire engineers and their colleagues nationwide.

Construction Pipeline Report

The fifth edition of the Construction Pipeline Report, commissioned by MBIE, and jointly prepared by Pacifecon and BRANZ, provided us with a future view of national construction activity. The Report highlights national building and construction at a higher peak than previous years with a longer duration than previously forecast. Dwelling consents are forecast to reach a new peak over the next five years, exceeding the 2004 peak of 31,000 this year and continuing to do so for the next five years, and reaching a peak of 34,500 dwelling units annually in 2019 and 2020. Growth in non-residential buildings is forecast to continue for longer and to a higher level than previously forecast. Non-residential building activity in 2016 grew 12%, as forecast in the 2016 report. We are now forecasting another 29% growth to a higher level of $9.6b in 2019.

This Report was completed pre-election, and, post-election we note trends progressing as forecast which means there is a phenomenal amount of work coming up for everyone involved in the construction industry. It also means there is likely to be a continued shortage of staff across the board, including in fire engineering, design and safety.  This means fine tuning systems and processes to be more productive. It also means trying to engage with other design professionals earlier in the process so designs progress smoothly through times when people and resources are at a premium.

High-stakes, high rise

I have already written about this recently on this site. The Grenfell Tower tragedy put the spotlight on cladding performance around the world. As the details of the Grenfell disaster unfolded during the months following the tragedy we saw the challenges faced by professional engineers throughout the world to maintain standards in the face of commercial pressures both from within and outside the profession. We have watched our Australian colleagues struggle a great deal more about cladding performance than us, given they have built a lot more apartment buildings to date than us.  We are certainly moving fast in this direction and while we are not there yet the lessons are of vital importance.

As already noted, we don’t build buildings in the same way as they do in other countries, yet we do rely on systems tried and tested in these countries. This creates more challenges for us to test for and demonstrate compliance. Associated of course with the discussion around cladding has been the ongoing discussion around the weather tightening of houses and apartments that have failed to ‘stay tight’ and meet the entirely reasonable expectations of owners and dwellers alike.

MBIE review of fire safety documents

In 2017 the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) began consultation aimed at improving fire safety regulations for New Zealand buildings. This review process will enable us to improve and innovate to create even better systems. The new proposals included increased flexibility in the use of internal surface finishes, clarification of Building Code requirements for structural performance in fire, updating of the Verification Method (especially for tall buildings) and supporting Alternative Solutions for fire designs by issuing guidance.

These new proposals seek to make fire safety requirements easier to understand and apply, promoting innovation in fire safety engineering and design, and supporting collaboration between building professionals. MBIE has received input from the New Zealand Fire Service, SPFE, building control officials and architects. MBIE has further worked with international fire engineering experts to develop these proposals.

Consultation closed on 14 July and the outcomes of the review are currently under review.

Such consultation is good in that MBIE are aiming for greater safety. This we applaud but we also note a need to improve sector engagement and communication. This became evident during the recent announcement about the changes to C/VM2 scope where effective engagement and scoping around the change announcement might have improved the overall consultation process.

From 2018 – 2020 my goal is to make SFPE more visible so that our by-line Engineering a fire safe world can be heard and meaningfully acknowledged. More on this in our February 2018 newsletter when I look toward the year ahead.

Michael James

Image Credit: Construction: Skylens. Offering UAV (drone) aerial imaging services including high resolution photography, aerial mapping and inspections.