Government tips funding into fire research for new materials

The federal government is funding research into fire retardant materials and safety as concerns escalate about security in high-rise buildings following fires in the Lacrosse building in Melbourne in 2014 and the recent Grenfell disaster in London.

Close to $4.3 million has been allocated through the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Research Program for a new ARC Training Centre in Fire Retardant Materials and Safety Technologies.

The research team will be led by Professor Guan Heng Yeoh from the University of New South Wales Faculty of Engineering.

Other members of the team include chief superintendent of Fire and Rescue NSW Dr Greg Buckley and Standards Australia’s Adam Stingemore.

A fire safety expert who will be working with leading researchers on the program said the project would aim to train a cohort of researchers to improve the fire safety of lightweight materials, structures and fire protection systems.

Wayne Bretherton, director of property & buildings ANZ at WSP said it was inevitable that new materials and performance based designs came with unknown risks.

Part of the focus will be on new, sustainable and fire retardant materials, he said. The ARC would also aim to develop advanced fire models for the urban built environment, new fire suppression technologies, and new flammability tests for compliance with fire safety regulatory standards.

Mr Bretherton told The Fifth Estate that since fires associated with flammable cladding at Lacrosse and in Dubai, the topic has been “very front of mind”.

WSP’s role in the research is to bring the industry experience, and be a link between the academics and industry.

The core issues were how modern materials meet building codes and relevant standards.

The current fire life safety codes and standards were based on “traditional assumptions” about how we build and what we build with.

The Grenfell tower, for example, was built according to a code that probably assumed the facade would be concrete or masonry, as that had been the usual type of facade for towers.

“Modern materials can have unintended consequences.”

With any material, there is a need to consider not just why it is used – for sound insulation or thermal insulation, for example.

“They should be considered for all aspects of what a material is expected to achieve.”

Mr Bretherton said that it is to be expected that building materials and how they are used will continue to evolve.

“What we use for constructing buildings is going to change over time,” he said.

“In terms of fire when a material comes to market there needs to be a proper assessment of how it is developed and used.”

This was important because sticking with traditional forms “stifles innovation”.

He said the growing uptake of prefabrication was having an influence on how materials were evolving, with more lightweight materials are being developed and used.

However, how those materials all interact once in a building is the grey area that needs to be understood.

Mr Bretherton said building codes were not the only thing playing catch-up.

Up until last year, for example, there was no requirement to test wall assemblies for fire life safety. The requirement was for individual materials to be tested to demonstrate non-combustibility, not the whole facade assembly or wall assembly.

The new research will be about determining appropriate testing methodologies for new materials or combinations of materials.

Other organisations involved in the work include the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council, the Department of Finance Services and Innovation, Defence Science and Technology Organisation’s Maritime Division, consultants Adaptafire and a number of materials engineering firms.

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