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Changes Ahead for the National Construction Code

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Public comments have just been closed on the proposed revisions to the National Construction Code. The new Code intends to address some of the critical issues that have been top of mind in the industry, including fire safety, compliance, and building energy performance.

The public comment draft of NCC 2019 was released in February, with comments on changes for residential construction closing on April 13 and commercial buildings on April 20. The Australian Building Codes Board and key stakeholders will now consider the feedback, with the final NCC 2019 preview version due to be available from the ABCB website in February 2019.

The new code will come into effect across all Australian states and territories on May 1, 2019.

Key Changes

Some of the key changes that could affect many builders and trades include: 

  • A major overhaul of Section J, the energy efficiency and thermal performance rules, 

  • A proposed ban on the use of bonded laminate products where a non-combustible product is required, 

  • The introduction of new verification pathways for commercial buildings, 

  • The use of encapsulated timber products on mid-rise multi-level buildings as a Deemed-to-Satisfy solution.

Improving Energy Performance

When it comes to the Section J changes, one of the new elements on the table is energy performance requirements for vertical transportation, such as lifts and escalators, as well as for moving walkways. The new-look code also allows projects aiming to achieve Green Star or NABERS Energy ratings to use the modelling undertaken as part of obtaining these ratings as the verification method for NCC 2019 energy performance compliance.

Building envelope sealing is another area in the spotlight, with blower door testing introduced as an optional verification method. The section of the code relating to sealing has also been clarified.

Lighting, glazing, mechanical plant, and pumps have also been addressed in an overall effort to help the building industry do its part to meet the goals of the National Energy Productivity Plan around improving energy efficiency.

The Green Building Council of Australia has welcomed the proposals for commercial buildings. However, it has also called on the ABCB to ensure that the next iteration of changes, for NCC 2022, addresses the residential sector more comprehensively.

The current proposals have made some adjustments to requirements for residential Class 1 dwellings, including tightening up the Verification Using a Reference Building compliance pathway and clarifying the requirements of some sections of the code. A new Verification Method has also been introduced for building sealing.

“The proposal to increase the stringency of energy requirements for commercial buildings is a huge step forward and one that we strongly support."

“The proposal to increase the stringency of energy requirements for commercial buildings is a huge step forward and one that we strongly support,” says Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer of the Green Building Council of Australia. “Improved building energy efficiency offers a win-win-win solution, reducing stress on the electricity network and supporting a least-cost pathway to decarbonisation, while also delivering financial savings and improved comfort to building occupants.”

Achievable Targets

According to Ms Madew, stronger minimum standards are needed to “lift performance across the board and ensure market-wide transformation.” And although the GBCA welcomes the ABCB’s efforts to improve compliance measures for the energy efficiency requirements for residential buildings in the NCC 2019 draft, Ms Madew believes there is “still scope to do much more.”

“The Building Ministers’ Forum needs to establish clear targets that align with the transition to net zero building emissions, along with a forward trajectory for the Code energy requirements to achieve these targets,” she says. “More than half of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have yet to be built. We can’t afford to miss the opportunity to ensure they are constructed to higher energy efficiency standards.”

She called on the BMF to commit to an “ambitious” increase in stringency for residential buildings in the code by 2022 “at the latest.”

Fire Safety Changes

One of major concern for the industry is preventing a future Grenfell or another Lacrosse fire. The proposed change relating to bonded laminated materials addresses the problem.

Up until now, the NCC contained a concession allowing certain materials that contained combustible fibres or were themselves combustible to be used in place of a non-combustible material.

The materials were supposed to be used where they are a relatively low risk and unlikely to present a fire safety hazard. Under this concession, a bonded laminated material comprising non-combustible lamina joined by adhesive layers that may be combustible was permitted if it met the Code’s specified spread-of-flame and smoke-developed indices as a whole.

One of major concern for the industry is preventing a future Grenfell or another Lacrosse fire. The proposed change addresses the problem.

In response to fire safety concerns following the Lacrosse fire and others involving aluminium composite facade panels, an out-of-cycle amendment, NCC 2016 Volume One Amendment 1, was released. While it retained the concession, it specified all lamina, including the core, must be non-combustible. It was scheduled for adoption by all States and Territories from March 12.

In the draft of NCC 2019, the concession for bonded laminated materials has been removed, following feedback from stakeholders on the NCC 2016 amendment. There were concerns that the concession has the potential for misuse. It could likely open the gate for the use of  hazardous products, for example, when used as external cladding on high-rise buildings.

Other key changes relating to fire safety in the NCC 2019 Public Comment Draft include new residential sprinkler requirements and improvements to other fire measures like changes to penetration protection, sprinklers in lift motor rooms and improvements to the clause relating to evidence of suitability.

An updated Fire Safety Verification Method has also been included.

The draft changes have been welcomed by the Fire Protection Association of Australia, which proposed some of these measures in a Proposal for Change submitted jointly with Fire and Rescue New South Wales and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council.

“The NCC 2019 Public Comment Draft arguably includes the most significant fire safety related changes in a decade."

“This NCC Public Comment Draft includes numerous changes to fire safety requirements and the proposed referencing of the FPA Australia Technical Specifications for the first time. It is a significant reflection of the capability and industry partnerships we have developed,” FPAA General Manager of Technical Services and Deputy CEO, Matthew Wright, says.

“The NCC 2019 Public Comment Draft arguably includes the most significant fire safety related changes in a decade, coinciding with the re-confirmation of the community’s expectations for fire safety.”

Good News for Timber Construction

Following many years of research, lobbying, and ground-breaking exemplar projects including Lendlease’s International House and Forte developments and Strongbuild’s Macarthur Gardens, advocates for the use of timber in construction have reason to celebrate the NCC 2019 draft proposals.

The code’s provisions would make it easier to use fire-protected timber in buildings of up to eight storeys, such as retail shops, carparks, storage warehouses, laboratories, hospitals, schools, and aged care facilities. The permitted timber systems include traditional “stick” framing and the new engineered “massive” timbers, such as laminated veneer lumber, cross-laminated timber, and glulam.

Forest and Wood Products Association National Manager Codes & Standards Boris Iskra says that those proposing the use of timber would be able to gain building approval if their designs meet the proposed Deemed-to-Satisfy provisions. Under the current code, tall timber buildings are only approved as a Performance Solution — a far more costly and time-consuming process.

FWPA led the efforts that saw similar changes introduced in 2016, allowing timber for apartments, hotels, and offices.

“And now we’re on the brink of extending that to other types of buildings,” Iskra says. “We’re proud to have successfully made the case to the authorities that timber can meet the required standards.”

“We’re proud to have successfully made the case to the authorities that timber can meet the required standards.”

Fire protection measures under the proposed changes include fire-protective grade plasterboard; fire-resisting cavity barriers; and a compliant sprinkler system; as well as hydrants, hose reels, and portable fire extinguishers as required.

Ric Sinclair, Managing Director of FWPA, says there are a number of respects in which sustainably sourced timber buildings are greener than the alternatives.

“Obviously, wood stores carbon dioxide over the life of the building, which other materials don’t. It performs well thermally, so it doesn’t require as much energy to heat and cool. It also lends itself to prefabrication and quick installation, meaning less disruption to neighbours and fewer truck movements,” he said. “The other major advantage is the speed of construction. Time is money when it comes to building.”

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