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Investigating passive fire protection defects in residential multi-owned properties

What we did and why

The VBA supported research by Deakin University through a research grant to better understand the types and prevalence of defects in passive fire protection systems in Victorian apartment buildings.

An adequate level of fire safety requires all components of the building’s fire safety system to function in a coordinated way. While active systems such as smoke alarms and sprinklers are activated when exposed to heat, smoke and toxic gases, passive fire protection systems don’t need to be activated manually or automatically because they are built into the structure and fixtures of the building. Passive elements include fire isolated stairways, fire-rated walls and separating floors, self-closing fire or smoke doors, door smoke seals and appropriate exit widths.

The research reviewed the regulatory system to identify any regulatory gaps and recommend reforms and solutions to mitigate these types of defects. It used an exploratory research design with a mix of approaches including comparative jurisdictional analysis of regulatory frameworks, analysis of audit and inspection data, and semi-structured interviews with a cross section of professionals.

Deakin University’s Dr Nicole Johnston led the research, building on previous research (PDF) about the types of defects in apartment buildings and how they impacted on buildings and their occupants.

What we found

Although difficult to quantify, the research identified evidence to suggest there are a large number of Class 2 buildings in Victoria that are likely to have passive fire protection (PFP) defects, with most of these likely relating to improper penetrations of fire and smoke rated walls.

The research identified several causes and contributors to PFP defects, including:

  • building practitioners’ lack of knowledge about passive fire safety requirements
  • poor construction management practices leading to uncoordinated installation processes
  • issues with testing and verification of PFP systems and products (inadequate testing to ensure compatibility of intersection PFP products, and lack of transparency of test reports and data)
  • poor delivery of and lack of access to relevant construction documentation
  • rectification reluctance by building owners (particularly if costs are significant).

Proactive quality assurance (such as via the engagement of passive fire protection practitioners) was identified as a driver of PFP compliance.

While this research broadly investigates PFP defects in residential apartment buildings and specifically, strata schemes1, most of the data provided for and analysed in this project relates to Class 2 buildings. A key limitation of the research is the lack of available, consistent and usable data about building defects.

What difference this made

The research identified opportunities to reduce the causes of PFP defects through:

  • increased practitioner education and licensing of passive fire safety practitioners
  • improved pathways to access relevant documents throughout construction and post-occupancy
  • the testing, accreditation and verification of PFP systems
  • proactive quality assurance during construction
  • shared responsibility and liability across different practitioners.

This research, building on previous research, provides further insights on the causes and contributors of PFP defects, and opportunities to improve building safety.

The research supports the VBA’s regulatory focus on reducing improper service penetrations during construction through behavioural interventions and the continuing focus of our Proactive Inspections Program on areas of compliance risk such as service penetrations.

The VBA launched a communications campaign in March 2023 to increase awareness of the consequences of improper service penetrations and increase individual practitioner responsibility for compliance during the performance of service penetrations.

The VBA has shared the report and its insights with key regulators and stakeholders to help inform policy, regulatory and fire-safety considerations in multi-storey residential buildings.

A Practice Note about Service penetration installations in fire rated and smoke proof walls (PDF, 218 KB) has been issued to provide guidance to practitioners on selection and installation of service penetrations in fire rated and smoke-proof walls.

In August 2023 we hosted the fifth annual Building Surveyors Conference. The Improving Building Health panel showcased research supported by the VBA on issues impacting the health and safety of building occupants. Facilitated by Bronwyn Weir (co-author of the 2018 Building Confidence Report), the panel comprised Dr Nicole Johnston discussing insights from this research, as well as Dr Tim Law discussing insights from the Examining indoor mould and moisture damage in Victorian residential buildings  research, Professor Rebecca Bentley discussing research into healthy housing and Dan O’Brien of Cladding Safety Victoria discussing balcony defects and water ingress issues identified through the Victorian Government’s Cladding Rectification Program. A recording of the panel discussion is available for viewing.