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Keep saving the precious resource and learn about fire prevention mistakes, often made during construction

We have a new president, and Mrs Mac in her infinite wisdom has decided this is a sign things must change around the MacAlister household.

I sense a new job jar of horrendous proportions on the horizon. When I am told the varnish has worn off the sill of the back door, you know her beady eye is going to check the whole house, and I am going to be kept busy. I have to agree the house is looking a little tired, so we will pass on ideas we come up with which may interest others.

What a pleasure it is to see water back on the shelves of supermarkets and not witness the strained faces of customers begging for or fighting over a 5 litre bottle, and queues at the springs are now shorter.

I want to appeal to everybody not to become complacent. I believe life will never quite be the same again. We are not out of the woods yet and everybody needs to stick to their 50 litres a day.

We have seen a few bush blazes spring up and there have been a string of factory fires, so my mind has been turning to one of my favourite topics – around fires and insurance. Not every fire makes it on to the front pages of newspapers, unless it is a huge tragedy like Grenfell Tower in London.

Dion, an old friend, has been in touch. We have decided over the next few months we will work together to try to make more people aware of the mistakes made around the construction of buildings relating to fire protection.

Dion sent me this: “An already drought-embattled Cape Town awoke on Saturday to the startling news that the roof over the maternity ward of Mitchells Plain Hospital was on fire and the building was being evacuated.

“This is the second fire to strike this relatively new hospital since it opened in 2013. The first fire completely gutted the new trauma unit while the hospital was still under construction.

“It wasn’t that long ago that the world watched in horror as flames engulfed the Grenfell residential tower in London, resulting in the deaths of 71 residents. The investigation into this tragedy is ongoing but one thing is evident: current testing methods are now being considered hugely inadequate in predicting the behaviour of fire in a real-world scenario, and there are allegedly inconsistencies in the test reports issued for the insulation material used on the project.

This insulation material, in combination with the facade cladding material, is believed to have caused the frighteningly fast spread of the flames. “This is, however, where a common misconception needs to be dispelled.

Fire is rarely the direct cause of death; usually it is the resultant smoke and associated toxins within this smoke that is the primary cause.

“The obvious question would be: why are we still using combustible and potentially toxic construction materials and systems in buildings when there are non-combustible alternatives? Quite simply because building standards allow their use in the majority of our public buildings, places of learning, work and residential homes as long as they are less than three storeys high.

“Our building regulations are outdated, complicated, often open to misinterpretation and in most cases simply ‘cut and pasted’ from other international standards. 

“There is way too much faith placed in ‘competent persons’ who are responsible for ‘rational design’ when designing buildings outside the parameters of the ‘deemed to satisfy’ prescribed building regulations. 

“All too often a ‘competent person’s’ competency is tested only when a catastrophic failure occurs. In our cost-driven market, ‘value engineering’ has become a popular occupation, especially among the professions under constant pressure to find savings for the client. Unfortunately, ‘value engineering’ often results in misinformed decisions that offer short-term savings but result in disproportionate life cycle costs. 

“Far more concerning though, and as a result of this, ‘value engineering’ is causing an increasing number of catastrophic failures around the world that have led to the loss of human life. 

“Fires have a way of making the inexcusable impossible to ignore. Historically, it has often taken a fire to change things: when London burned in 1666 (with, as far as is known, fewer deaths than Grenfell Tower), it led to the building standards that would shape the city in the ensuing centuries.

“International insurers are increasingly demanding an immediate end to the use of combustible building envelope materials on new and refurbished buildings, and are calling for the development of more robust testing regimes that definitively prove materials are not combustible and are able to replicate how these materials will perform in real-world conditions.

“Changes to our confusing and outdated fire safety regulations and a clearer framework of responsibility for those in the protection of our buildings from fire is urgently needed in South Africa before we pay the ultimate price, as happened in the deadly fire at Paarl Press.”

Dion is on a national body charged with looking into fire protection of buildings and, as you can see, he is passionate about this subject.

*Handy Mac, aka Don MacAlister, is our expert on household DIY issues. If you have a question for him, please send it to don@macalister.co.za or SMS only to 082 446 3859. Find Don on FB: facebook.com/thehandymac

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