So since the fire in London, been reading a few different articles on the matter. Also here in Australia, the TV news interviewed some representative of Engineers Australia who touted the view we should get our plans certified by a certified fire engineer. As may gather I disagree with such assertion.

For a system to be quality robust it needs to be independent of the people involved. We should not abdicate our responsibilities to self-appointed authorities: it is far better that we have a body of knowledge which is curated, guarded and disseminated and shared with a population at large. It should be possible for independent individuals to confirm or refute the assertions in such body of knowledge. However it is also important that we do not just rely on supporting evidence to confirm assertions. The accumulation of evidence in support of an assertion does not mean that it is true, it is also necessary to seek evidence which will refute the assertion. The classic example is the assertion that: all swans are white. Though here in Australia, our assertion may well be that: all swans are black. Environment is therefore important to the evidence which we may find. We therefore have to look beyond that which may appear to be immediately obvious.

Our education system is an important curator and guardian of knowledge. The Australian qualification framework (AQF) is an important aspect of sharing and disseminating such knowledge. If knowledge is merely held in peoples heads, then it will be lost from one generation to next, as the need for knowledge is random. Knowledge therefore needs to be recorded in as near permanent form as possible: for the most part that means that it needs to be written down. Writing knowledge down provides the greatest potential for sharing knowledge compared to passing from person to person. The written record can be referenced, criticised and modified.

Once again I declare that:

Engineering takes place at the frontiers of technology.

Buildings are neither a frontier of science nor a frontier of technology. But knowledge about buildings isn’t appropriately organised and shared.

The building code of Australia (BCA), or National Construction Code (NCC), for example barely makes reference to the component parts of a building: it barely has anything to do with buildings. The BCA/NCC is mostly about spaces, their use and the control of the environment in those spaces. The materials of construction are largely referenced indirectly through the requirements of the space. Which is ok, so long as we do specify and control all the critical characteristics of the materials and component parts.

I have mentioned several times before that the building industry seems to be the only industry where people run around declaring they do things to the code and believe that to be a good thing. It isn’t. The code is mandatory, they are meant to do it to the code or do better. Most other industries tend to promote products on the basis of exceeding the codes because the codes are deficient: either the codes have low performance criteria, or they only cover a limited range of critical characteristics. Put simply something designed to a mandated code is basically low quality rubbish. So to run around declaring that you supply a product to the code, is to declare that you supply low quality rubbish. Moreover there is an implication that others are failing to do it to the code, and therefore we are lucky we can find someone who can do it to the code. Thus overall a low quality industry.

Ah! But the BCA/NCC has excessively high energy efficiency requirements. Possibly. But if it does, that just indicates a lack of understanding of quality by the code writers. High performance does not equate to high quality. So it is about time people in the building industry started to understand quality characteristics of the products they supply, and not simply comply with mandated prescriptions and limited performance criteria.

I find it unacceptable just how many manufacturers do not have have knowledge of the properties of the materials they supply. I may have mentioned before, a manufacturer chose some glass from a manufacturer in Queensland, I contacted that manufacturer for mechanical/physical properties of their materials, they directed me to a consultant civil engineer in Victoria. The manufacturer, then found a local supplier in South Australia, I met with the people from the supplier, and requested information about their materials, I was directed to a consultant in Victoria: the same consultant as previous. It is not acceptable. They are manufacturing a product, they should be testing the properties of the material on a regular basis to ensure they meet specifications. They clearly were not doing so.

Extreme it may be, but I typically expect manufacturers to have the following laboratories:

  1. Metrology lab
  2. Materials lab
  3. Workshop lab

The metrology lab is for accurate measurements, the materials lab for testing material, and the workshop laboratory for building and testing product prototypes. There is only so much that calculations can do. Theory has to be determined from experimentation. We do not live in a world where everything is documented in books and we can dismiss experimentation. However, it is important to be aware of what humanity already knows and not go around inventing inferior wheels as it were. At present the industrialised world seems to be intent on involving inferior versions of the old tried and tested technologies: and content with accepting such rubbish. (For example why does Android and MS Windows need to update so often. More to the point as far as I am aware the product I bought worked perfectly fine out-off-the-box: and the only defects come with unwanted upgrades, which have to be replaced because of the defects introduced.)

So has far as possible I am going to continue writing dismissing engineering and concentrating on: planning, design and management. Making sure that we can develop an education and training system along with qualification framework, which assists us to maintain, sustain and ultimately improve the technologies we have become dependent on.

Science supposedly help destroy the ancient guilds, we need to prevent them from re-emerging in alternative forms. We should not permit self-regulation of professions, nor government regulations, nor any other form of regulation. The reason being is that regulation is not based on a dynamic adaptive regulator which maintains an acceptable state no matter what the operating environment.

With properly published and shared knowledge, then anyone can test anyone.

To be cynical, as far as I know a fire engineer would be someone with a 4 year B.Eng, most likely in civil engineering, who managed to light a barbecue without setting the entire state on fire. They achieved this under the supervision of someone who previously was able to light a candle without burning the house down. Or maybe they worked in McDonalds and were able to start the grill without burning the store down.

I don’t know, but I do know there is a relatively limited body of knowledge concerning the science of fire. So the area of practice is relatively close to my definition of engineering: and that makes it an uncertain and high risk activity. So for high density residential probably better to stay with the tried and tested: the established technologies unless a new technology has been well tested.

The important point to remember is that just because something complies with a mandated code doesn’t mean it is quality robust. If  a product/process is not quality robust then something can happen which will result in a failure in an unacceptable manner.

To reiterate previous postings:  no matter how high we pick them to be, design loads can always be exceeded. The important aspect of design is to attempt to make a system fail-safe: that is it fails in an acceptable manner. If we do not consider over load, or other failure conditions, then the design is unlikely to be fail safe. At present codes for buildings do not consider failure modes, and formal education is not directed at fail safe design nor quality robust design: or at least not for architects and civil engineers. Fail safe is an important design issue for machines and electrical devices: buildings on the other hand seem designed on the basis of cross your fingers and hope the mandated design criteria are not exceeded: and a belief on the part of many people in the industry that if they did it to the code then not their responsibility, since if higher quality required then higher quality should have been mandated in the code. But as I said near the beginning: the building industry seems to be one of the few industries which needs to be dragged around by a mandated code.

Other industries tend to design products to be fit-for-function and suitable-for-purpose from first principles, not some mandated requirements. They also seem to better appreciate that a coroner’s inquest isn’t overly concerned with what the codes require, but what ought to have been done.

Any product once released to the market will be put to uses way beyond the intents of the designer: and attempting to predict those uses and safeguard against mishap from misuse is a nightmare.

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