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Are our buildings safe​?

21 February 2018

On 16 January, the OEM facilitated a discussion on WA's buildings. The session focused on existing control measures in place to reduce damage to buildings across the state from (bush) fire, wind, water and earthquake (Figure 1) as well as ideas for future treatments. Participants from the following organisations attended: 

  • Australian Institute of Building Surveyors

  • Building Commission

  • City of Mandurah

  • Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES)

  • Department of Planning

  • Fire Protection Association Australia

  • Housing Industry Association

  • Insurance Council of Australia

  • Local Government Professionals Australia

  • Shire of York

  • Society for Building Services Engineers

  • WALGA ​

Wha​t's working?

The Building Code of Australia (BCA) is the most effective and applied control measure for bushfire, cyclone/storm and earthquake damage to buildings. However, site planning (e.g. drainage systems, soakwells, slope vegetation), flood mapping and broader state and local planning policies were rated as the most effective and applied controls against flood damage.

Below are a few of the current building controls that are working well for each hazard.​

  • ​Application of the Building Code of Australia (BCA)

  • Wind Regions (Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1170.2:2002) which dictate certain wind speeds a structure must be able to withstand

  • Community education (e.g. pre-cyclone clean-up)

  • ​Application of the Building Code of Australia (BCA)

  • Planning regulations and policy (e.g. SPP 3.7 – Planning in Bushfire Prone Areas)

  • Firefighting capability

  • Fire protection systems

  • Fuel reduction

  • ​Building Code of Australia (BCA) specifies that a building in a flood hazard area must be able to withstand floodwater impacts

  • Site planning (e.g. drainage systems, soakwells, slope vegetation)

  • Flood mapping

  • Broader state and local planning policies

  • Application of the Building Code of Australia (BCA)

  • Design for earthquakes (Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1170.4) which​​​ includes the seismic zone map. However, most domestic structures are not required to be specifically designed for earthquakes.​

What's ​​​​missing?

Man​datory inspection processes

Currently, there is no mandatory inspection process following construction of residential buildings. Upon receipt of the building licence and following construction, inspections are not required to see whether the building follows the submitted plans or specified materials. Adherence to which relies on the faithfulness of the owner and competency of the builder.

While local governments (LGs) have powers to inspect and arbitrate, no overarching legislation to enforce compliance exists. LGs often do not have resources or funding to undertake this.

For larger buildings and subdivisions, a planning application and separate building application outline conditions that the owner/developer must meet. These buildings require a Certificate of Design Compliance once construction is complete. Compliance is assessed by an independent building surveyor, outsourced by LGs or engaged by the building owner. However, compliance with these conditions is assessed against the building application and not against those outlined in the planning application.  

This presents a problem. Planning approval for an area/subdivision may have been deemed satisfactory due to non-structural risk reduction measures (e.g. fire breaks, asset protection zones); however these planning conditions are not checked for compliance after construction. The current building and planning schemes in WA are not integrated and are open to compliance loop holes.

Ongoing fire protection ​​​checks

For buildings which require internal fire protection systems, an initial assessment is conducted after construction. Following this initial assessment there is no obligation to have fire systems checked at any later date and no auditing of these systems is carried out. While this is of concern, legislation or regulation does not exist to enforce compliance or allow for random checks.

Natural hazar​​d safety

Looking beyond fire, safety from natural hazard impacts is typically not considered when purchasing/renting a property and residents may be unaware their home could be impacted by natural hazards. An awareness of the impacts of wind driven rain, hail, wind, inundation, fire and earthquake shaking would allow home owners to make informed decisions about the location of their property and the quality of property they invest in.

Reliance o​​​n expertise

Home-owners must also rely on the knowledge and expertise of a number of sectors (e.g. engineers, surveyors, plumbers, electricians, builders). Often, the responsibility for sub-standard building materials or construction lands with the homeowner as there is limited responsibility within the system.

What​​ ca​​n be done?

The five top rated treatment ideas suggested would require the support and involvement of industry and government:

1. Mandatory inspection of properties following construction                    

2. Refining and improving the Map of Bush Fire Prone Areas (for bushfire risk)

3. Mandatory accreditation and competency for building industry professionals                               

4. Mandatory accreditation for Bushfire Attack Level assessors                 

5. Integrated land-use planning and building schemes​

​For each strategy, the body of work and political will needed to implement these would be substantial. Two additional treatment​​​ ideas, building safety educational campaigns and a professional natural hazard risk property assessment, take the responsibility to the public.


A possible way forward for the public can be found in the annals of the auto industry. Educational campaigns for vehicle safety measures have seen the market respond (aided by legislation). Now, safety is a prime consideration when purchasing a car. It was suggested that efforts such as educational campaigns or the like, designed to alert the public to the realities of current building safety measures (e.g. fire equipment safety and exposure to hazards) could help the public understand their risks. This would enable informed decisions on the prevention, or acceptance, of the risks.

Familiarising the real estate industry with natural hazard risk could be an effective starting point. A professional natural hazard risk property assessment (similar to that of voluntary termite inspections) would provide the owner with a list of the natural hazard risks they face, how their house could be impacted and what prevention measures they could take implement to prevent damage. It would provide a concrete trigger for the informed decision process about house safety from natural hazards. If the advice is accepted or not is the buyer's decision, but a culture shift could occur as it would be placed in the minds of residents. If these assessments were completed at the time of sale, a well-prepared house may be worth more. In time, market forces could make it more valuable to live in a house and area that is safe from extreme weather and bushfire events.  ​

Figure 1: High and extreme risk statements for residential and commercial buildings by region and by hazard.​