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The cladding myth


Due to recent events, the cladding issue has provoked debate and the safety of building façades has become a pressing issue. Shapeshell and its parent company Shapeshift Design Technologies have been at the forefront of appropriate full-scale fire testing and have found, despite rising tensions surrounding cladding, new does not have to mean risky.

Advanced composite materials (ACMs) have come a long way since their crude beginnings, and it is these technological advancements that are utilised by ShapeShell to make it a leader in architectural advanced composite solutions.

Once used solely in the aerospace industry, today advanced composites are being employed across many different industries. Indeed, they are used anywhere that requires superior strength and weight, as well as in environments where there is an element of risk; for example, the rail industry where trains, both inside and out, are built from composites.

First things first, however; the term ‘composites’ is extremely broad. It’s like calling a specific type of wood ‘wood’ – it doesn’t take into account the immense diversity between the materials or make any differentiation between, for example, a lightweight chipboard and the highest quality forest hardwood. Yet there’s a huge difference.

We’ve been pushing to educate the market to make this distinction between advanced composites and lesser quality composites such as Fibre Reinforced Polymers (FRP) and Glass Reinforced Polymers (GRP), which are low-grade and made easily with cheap manufacturing techniques. The advanced composites available to the architecture and design industry today combine superior aerospace materials with advanced manufacturing techniques, and are now at a point where they are an accessible and cost-effective alternative to the traditional materials once used.

These superior materials also mean that the combustibility of the finished ShapeShell cladding is greatly reduced. ShapeShell is a high-quality woven fibre polymer matrix, and it’s the structure of the fibre, its weave, weight bias and weft that hold the secret to its strength. The latest advancements in the field rely on aligning filaments and stitching them together in a parallel direction, or perpendicular to each other as a weave. Combined with an epoxy resin, the resulting product is up to 15 times stronger than its predecessor and has the flexibility to assume a predetermined shape while still handling structural complexities. This allows architects an unparalleled, previously unattainable freedom when it comes to design, and the result is a lighter, stronger product with greater longevity, reliability and flame retardancy.

If there’s one thing the cladding debates have unlocked after the recent horrific events at London’s Grenfell Tower and Dockland’s 2014 Lacrosse building fire, it’s that building standards are struggling to keep up with the introduction of modern materials. In Australia, for example, the fire standard that determines levels of combustibility – AS 1530 – is 23 years old. These small sample tests do not accurately or adequately reflect today’s building materials or the way they perform in a large-scale fire.

Following the Lacrosse fire, a panel of experts was formed from within the building and fire safety industries, the result of which was a new set of standards – AS 5113 (fire propagation testing and classification of external walls of buildings). These new standards are due to be incorporated into the Building Approval and Certification (BCA) in 2019 and call for all cladding to undergo the BS 8414 test. This test is a British Standard full-scale façade test to assess the fire safety applied to a building’s external cladding.

Presently, ShapeShell is two years ahead in the testing game. Although the new standards are not currently enforced yet, ShapeShell commissioned the full-scale façade burn test BS 8414. At the time there was no test facility in Australia that could accommodate it, so BRE Global in England ran the test. The test simulates a fire in a building corner and 30 minutes of high-energy fuel is ignited. The temperature reaches 900 degrees Celsius and, although the test reveals smoke damage, there is no combustion from the ShapeShell cladding. We conducted this test 18 months ago because we recognise the importance of the standards, and whatever those standards may be – the current ones or future ones – we want to be much better than them.

ShapeShell does not burn; it will not propagate fire up a façade and the 8414 test confirms this fact. The test is not subjective – it’s pass or fail, and there is no in-between. The aforementioned tragedy in London and the alarming event in Melbourne’s Docklands have sparked a cladding myth, a panic surrounding building façades and their safety. Not all cladding is the same, and not all cladding is like that used on the Grenfell and Lacrosse towers. You can’t say that cladding is dangerous, for not all cladding is flammable, and changing this perception is an education process. There are many contributing factors toward risk and disaster, not a sole culprit.

The quality of the cladding and the way it is used, in conjunction with circumstances and external aspects such as access to sprinklers and fire escapes, all play a role in fire risk. If there’s a large amount of fuel load on a balcony and it combusts and spreads to another element, and there are no sprinklers, then cladding or no cladding you can still have a horrific fire. Like all industries, we are ever-evolving and making progress. The new technologies and advancements in ACMs hold the solution to the cladding myth – the new materials are proven, they’re tested, they’re safe.

People need to look past the hysteria and evaluate objectively – just because something is new, it doesn’t mean it’s a risk. Good architects, builders and fire engineers, they understand this. They know they don’t want flammable material on the side of their building, and they know that when a product is built using high-quality materials, it’s not dangerous. There are many superior cladding products that don’t pose a threat to the safety of a building. Fire risk is not just about the material; it’s about where that material is and the fire strategy around it.

Toby Whitfield is the group managing director at ShapeShift. Shapeshell is an AR Adviser.

Lead image: Orbis apartments, South Melbourne by ARM Architecture, facade by ShapeShell.

This article originally appeared in AR151 – available online and digitally through Zinio.

Read more about fire safety standards here.


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