Cladding of buildings versus fire safety

PART of Building Society in Lusaka has been cladded, making the building beautiful. PICTURE: VIOLET MENGO

ON JUNE 14, 2017, flames ripped through a west London tower block killing at least 80 people and injuring dozens more.

A devastating fire started at Grenfell Tower and emergency response was rapid and robust with more than 200 firefighters attending the scene with assistance arriving just six minutes after the first calls were made.
The Grenfell fire has raised questions in London about the cheap, flammable cladding made out of plastic panels that were fitted to the outside of the 24-storey tower block.
According to media reports from London, the recently refurbishment of cladding fitted to enhance thermal insulation and modernising the exterior of the building caused the fire to spread so quickly, resulting in the loss of life and property.
The kind of cladding used at Grenfell Tower consists of two half millimetre thick sheets of aluminium with a polyethylene core material between them.
Cladding is a material that is usually attached directly to the frame of a building to act as an outer wall.
Typically made from wood, metal, plastic, masonry or a range of materials, it is applied to prevent condensation and allow water vapour to escape.
It is also used to provide a degree of thermal insulation, weather resistance and to improve the appearance of buildings.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, the local authorities in the UK are rethinking the use of cladding materials, which are flammable.
Cladding of buildings has in the recent past become a common phenomenon in Zambia where both single and high rising buildings being constructed are cladded differently.
However, cladding can become a fire risk as has been seen from the Grenfell Tower fire incident.
Is Zambia ready to withstand the challenges associated with the use of cladding? Are there lessons that can be drawn from the London fire?
Engineering Institution of Zambia (EIZ) president George Sitali says one of the lessons from the London fire incident is the need to ensure review of building regulations.
Under CAP 480 of the Laws of Zambia, local authorities are given a lot of functions to perform derived from the republican Constitution even captured again in the Constitution of Zambia under Annex (Article176 (2)) item C.
In order to execute these functions, PART VIII of CAP 480 Article 81 gives councils power to make by-laws for the good rule and government of the affected areas.
A review of regulations, engineer Sitali notes, will help the country to be able to regulate the construction of modern buildings with minimal challenges.
Mr Sitali, who supports the use of cladding on buildings, noted that cladding removes the eye- soreness on some of the buildings by making them look beautiful.
His worry, however, is that most modern buildings in Zambia use cladding materials which are flammable.
“One of the major roles local authorities are supposed to play in as far as provision of architectural services has to do with making and enforcing building regulations to protect the general public,” Mr Sitali said.
He said the local authorities need to give ratings on building materials to help developers operate in line with the construction regulations, thereby ensuring standardisation in the industry.
Particular attention should be given to fire resistance rating and fire fighting equipment in buildings.
“Most of the public buildings I see in Zambia will have a fire extinguisher in a corner but when you look around for things like fire sprinklers, they are not there,” Mr Sitali says.
A fire sprinkler is a system that discharges water when the effects of a fire such as excessive temperature have been detected. Fire sprinklers are extensively used worldwide.
Mr Sitali called on the local authorities to ensure standardisation of cladding materials used in the country as opposed to anybody using anything.
In an ideal situation, there being no regulation for claddings, buildings should not be cladded until such a time that legislation is in place.
Should developers feel the need to use claddings on their buildings, it should be done in consultation with the local authority who should specify materials that have fire-resistant properties.
The EIZ president says in Zambia, many people are accustomed to using brick and mortar whose fire-resistant rating is very good as opposed to new materials which are common on the market. Many of these do not have fire-resistant quoting.
Mr Sitali says another lesson for Zambia is to ensure the provision of fire hydrants around cities, to make it convenient for firefighters to easily access water from within in times of fire.
“Many times in Lusaka, for example, the Fire Brigade has failed to quench fire because of lack of fire hydrants within the premises,” he said.
Another learning point for Zambia is to ensure that buildings have fire exits opened at all times.
“Most buildings, especially in the central business district (CBD) area, do not have fire exit or such exits have been closed permanently with some doors even welded,” Mr Sitali noted.
However, current guidelines across the world contain detailed design requirements for fire safety such as evacuation routes, compartmentation and structural fire design, a requirement that most buildings in Zambia need to put in place.
The EIZ president proposes the use of cladding which is fire-resistant and calls on the local authorities to ensure that buildings have in place things such as fire hydrants, extinguishers and escape routes clearly marked and visible especially for public buildings.
Another engineer, Golden Makayi, notes that Zambia needs to do a lot to guarantee the safety of the people in case of fire.
Mr Makayi suggests a serious evaluation of building proposals from developers, to ensure buildings are in conformity with regulations.
In the wake of what happened in London and City Market in Lusaka, he says particular attention should be paid to fire safety so that buildings are well equipped to respond to disasters.
The Zambia Bureau of Standards has given codes and standards for buildings and materials, but Mr Makayi says most of the standards are outdated.
Currently the National Council for Construction (NCC) has a committee in place working on standards.
Some of the standards are being revised while others are just being adapted from international treaties and adopted for use in Zambia.
“There are new construction materials and methods coming on board. If they are good methods, why not adopt them to make our environment look beautiful?” Mr Makayi says.
He recommends strengthening the local authorities in evaluating building plans that are submitted by developers.
For effective monitoring of construction of buildings, Mr Makayi proposes that local authorities collaborate with other government institutions.
Lusaka mayor Wilson Kalumba said the construction of buildings is monitored at every stage to ensure that developers are doing the right thing.
“We ensure the developer sticks to using the materials that have been mentioned in the building plan and do not go against their plans,” he said.
University of Zambia lecturer in the School of Engineering Ian Banda says there is need to holistically look at the issue of building standards of new buildings taking shape in the country.
“It is incumbent upon the entities which have the responsibility of regulating building construction to review the existing standards and maybe upgrade them,” he suggests.
Mr Banda says it is important to follow the law on what is required when it comes to construction of high-rise buildings or any building.
He also said it is important to understand why Zambia has adopted the use of cladding on buildings.
“It will be also cardinal to carry out a study of some buildings with claddings to establish which ones are using flammable materials before a stop can be enforced in the use of cladding,” Mr Banda said.

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