We received the following question about older building safety requirements from a NSW lot owner. Peter Berney, Solutions in Engineering has provided this response.
Question: Do new units have certain requirements older smaller block units may be exempt from? What do we need to know about older building safety requirements?
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We have a 40 year old unit block in NSW with only 3 units. Self-managed. Ideally I would like to get independent advice on safety requirements for windows, glass, balcony railings and (fire) doors. We don’t wish to upgrade these items unless it is essential. We think new units have certain requirements older smaller block units may be exempt from. What do we need to know about about older building safety requirements?
Answer: There are no differential standards for buildings on the basis of when they were constructed, or how many units they contain.
There are no differential standards for buildings on the basis of when they were constructed, or how many units they contain. However, compliance with the Building Code of Australia is not retrospective. Under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, a building only has to comply with the Building Code of Australia at the time of construction. As a result, the Building Code of Australia does not require you to continually update your windows, balcony railings and fire doors etc.
That said, part of your duty of care to residents and visitors includes ensuring that they are safe on the property. If a balcony railing (for example) is unstable and unsafe, there can be substantial consequences for not upgrading or repairing the balustrade. Even if the railing is structurally sound, we recommend that balustrades are updated as a matter of safety. Forty years ago the height requirements for balustrades were very lax. These are simply not safe by modern standards.
When considering the safety aspects on your scheme, common‐sense should prevail. I have been included in emails from Executive Committee members regarding the safety aspects of their schemes. I can tell you that some owners take the wrong approach. i.e. apathy, associated costs, short‐sightedness, and/or have an axe to grind with another owner.
Conduct a Walk Around
Start with a walk around with the Executive Committee members, but first check your egos and issues at the gate. Reframe your mind set and look at things logically and from that of a visitor to your strata scheme. If a potential trip hazard is pointed out, consider the likelihood of someone “unfamiliar” with you property tripping over it. Think about an elderly person or a child. Don’t just say “oh I’ve been walking past that for years and never tripped”. That is exactly what we are trying to avoid here, familiarity.
Once you have completed your inspection, consider the variety of items you’ve noticed and then consider getting a professional company to quote on conducting an expert inspection. Most common property claims are based on trips/slips/and falls. For around about $348, the cost verse a potential law suit represents good value. Your insurer will also appreciate the fact that your Owner Corporation has a proactive Executive Committee to work with as opposed to those that have a closer resemblance to a flightless African bird.
Fire Safety Doors
Items that you may have come across, depending on design and the type of construction, could also include Fire Safety Doors. Asbestos (being a good fire retardant) was used in Fire Doors up until 1987. There should be a tag on the inside spine of the door (hopefully it hasn’t been painted over) that may tell you the year it was made and if it (not all tags will) contains Asbestos Material. Doors manufactured after 1988 generally are Asbestos free. If the Fire Door hardware has failed e.g. the handles, closers, latches, pivot points you should have the doors replaced. However, if the doors have been kept in good condition then there is no need to do anything other than keep up the good maintenance work!
When I’m conducting Sinking Fund Plan seminars I always recommend to unit owners that if you have Asbestos (anywhere in the strata), have the inspector put an allowance in the SFP to have it removed by a professional, licensed Asbestos contractor. For example consider I have 3 unit building and there is Asbestos in the Fire safety Doors and the Soffits (eaves). If in the short‐term it isn’t considered dangerous e.g. it is tightly bound and in good condition, I would have a line item in my SFP to replace the Fire Safety Doors when funds become available. When work is due to be done on the roof or gutters e.g. Work at Heights I would have the Soffits replaced then. Now you have an Asbestos free building, one less thing to worry about and you’ve increased the resale value of your asset.
Common Property Glass
The same concept can apply for common property glass. We’ve all seen the amber coloured glass that looks like beer bottle glass but is a lighter shade. This glass is dangerous. If someone was to fall through or into this glass, it will shatter and the shards can be lethal. Once again, older buildings don’t have to replace amber coloured glass, but it is highly recommended. Use your SFP as it was intended. Put funds away to have the dangerous glass replaced when the OC can afford to. I’ve seen instances of an electrical contractor falling from a ladder and receiving serious lacerations to his arms. He sued the Owners Corporation for not providing him with a safe workplace.
With regards to balcony rails/balustrades, from 1997 to now the current BCA requirements apply. Height not less than 1 metre for balustrades, handrails/stairwell balustrades to be not less than 865mm. However older buildings have a much greater range of installed heights and configurations. This is because they were approved by local Council or other governing bodies at the time of construction.
Therefore the correct heights can be almost impossible to determine. Older Balustrades are often much lower than the later structures. These balustrades pose safety risks that were not considered at the time of construction. It’s not uncommon to see balustrades above 3 stories less than 700mm in height and constructed of horizontal rails. However, the codes used to meet compliance at the time of construction are not retrospective.
Let Common Sense Prevail
In keeping with the tone of this article, let common sense prevail. Look at it subjectively. Would you feel save allowing your child on the balcony of an older building? What about an elderly person that looks for items to support them when sitting down or attempting to stand? Keep in mind, if any alterations or major reports to existing balustrade occurs or you’re about to do this type of work, the Building Code of Australia requires that the balustrade MUST meet the current requirements.
This article is not intended to be personal advice and you should not rely on it as a substitute for any form of advice.
The photo associated with this post has been supplied by Flickr: Twenty-four Students – Trip Hazard Kane.
Are you interested in more information about older building safety requirements or information particular to strata legislation in NSW? Visit our FactSheets: Maintenance and Common Property OR NSW Strata Legislation pages.
Looking to carry out repairs and maintenance of your common property? Search within our Strata Services Directory in the category Building Repairs and Maintenance NSW for the best list of contacts available.