You are using an outdated browser version not supported by this website.
Click here to upgrade your browser

21 February 2022

Modern Apartment Design on Fire

stairwell sean foster hOQT4F0BYEs unsplash copy

Within the last six months, our country has had a real wake-up call, with a sudden law change that caught everyone napping, allowing far higher levels of density in our biggest cities. Talk about a blind-side move from a flanker — this particular move was ruled offside by many commenters, but the Government ploughed ahead and passed the “Enabling Housing Supply” law regardless, under the startling circumstances of Labour, National and the Greens all agreeing to it. Only ACT, the self-titled champions of the free market, objected to this move to free up the market. Strange times indeed.

So, after decades of building small and humble in our housing, Aotearoa is at long last thinking big. Not Think Big in a Rob Muldoon kind of way (if your memory even goes back that far), but think big in a far more dense manner. Yes, density is coming soon to a city near you, and as yet, absolutely no-one has any idea what the end effects will be on our country. We now know that in Tier One cities like Auckland, ordinary homeowners will now be able to build up to three houses on one section, higher than before, closer to the boundary than before, and all without having to ask anyone for permission. Talk about throwing a cat amongst the pigeons! This is more like throwing several cats into one cage, and then somehow expecting a bush full of gently cooing kererū to emerge. Let’s just say: feathers will fly, and we will be part of the collateral damage. Despite not voting for it in its present form, the architectural profession will get the blame.

I’m currently writing a book about this, called MEDIUM, all about the suddenly more interesting life of Medium Density Housing (MDH). In the meantime though, let’s look more closely at what we may term High Density Housing (HDH), otherwise known as apartment buildings. Unlike the backyard DIY densification that is sure to arise all around those in suburbia, apartment design still requires a resource consent and a skilled architect. I’ve written a book about this as well, Modern Apartment Design, which is due for a big book launch in March. Hopefully this book will be useful and interesting to all you apartment designers and apartment builders out there.

Unlike the three-in-one special on back yards with almost no rules, apartments need to comply with lots of rules, that you might think would be almost universally applied throughout the world. Rules that surely rely on common-sense to apply and over which there could surely be no argument. And… there you would be wrong. Rules apply differently to tall living in different countries around the world and sometimes the obvious rules do not seem to apply, in the most unusual of circumstances. Take staircases for example.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single apartment tower in possession of a good number of residents, must be in want of a second set of stairs.” OK, so I’m paraphrasing Jane Austen there a little, but surely it doesn’t need repeating, that a tall apartment building needs more than a single exit staircase? Especially in England, where there has within the last few years been the horrible example of Grenfell Tower, where there was only a single staircase, and where 70 people died that fateful night in 2017. And yet with the past fortnight we have heard of a proposed 51-storey apartment tower in London’s Canary Wharf that is exactly that: more than 650 bedrooms in a single tower with only a single fire egress staircase. It was all set up to be rubber-stamped into existence until a few architects and the Guardian newspaper began to kick up a well-deserved stink over the relative stupidity of the proposal, and now, rather belatedly it would seem, the architects (deservedly un-named) and the developer (Ballymore) have gone back to the virtual drawing board to have a rethink. The architects beholden to Ballymore will have a large redesign exercise to undertake, I imagine, and I’m not sure who is going to be paying for that particular screw-up.

It seems that the architects and developers had fallen into the same trap that the Grenfell Tower designers had fallen into back in 1974 with the original design — taking the word of the Fire Engineer too seriously. Fire engineers can sometimes prove to be a blessing by arguing the case for the specialist Fire Design of a tall building, enabling the architect to avoid some of the rigours of Clause C of the Building Code, but sometimes, it seems they too can get unstuck. Our NZBC clearly states that a building over four floors in height should have an alternative means of escape, ie. a second egress stair. Well, when I say “clearly states”, it is not that clear at all — as clear as mud in fact, as you will well know if you do this sort of thing regularly. If you’re interested, C/AS1 Clause 3.2 unhelpfully says that “Risk Group SH may be served by a single escape route provided the permitted dead end open path distance… is not exceeded.” Meanwhile, Clause 3.2.1 of C/AS2 states that “two escape routes are necessary, but not if clause 3.1.3 applies, and anyway, clause C/AS2 only applies for Buildings other than Risk Group SH,” which you will know is another way of saying residential. Confused yet? This seems to say that for tall office buildings, two exit stairs are necessary, but for tall apartment buildings, just a single exit stair will suffice. Is it really less risky to have a tall residential tower than a tall office tower? Don’t nearly all fires that kill people happen in residential homes? Twin escape stairs at all times from all tall buildings, should be simplest rule to make and to keep, yet one that seems to have been removed by fire engineers unknown. Our Clause C has become extremely complex to navigate and so most projects for tall buildings rely on the advice of a fire engineer. And so we do, but just be sure to double check that good old “common sense” has not been ignored as well. 

Entries for the competition have now closed.

Click here to learn more or purchase a copy of Modern Apartment Design by Guy Marriage.

comments powered by Disqus

Posts by Guy Marriage

See All

Get a free weekly digest of essential news

New and updated architectural products, design solutions, inspiration, technical advice and more when you sign up for EBOSS.