Can Regulation Keep Track with Innovation in Construction


Tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower, London and most recently in Valencia, Spain where fires were observed to spread swiftly across the exterior of the buildings have raised concerns whether current fire safety regulations are sufficient in addressing the adoption of new materials and innovations in the construction industry. Technologies are being developed at a rapid pace such that the existing legislation and regulations are often outpaced prior to the adoption of innovations such as tall wooden buildings, electrical vehicles (EVs) and portable charging devices. The increased risks of these innovations need to be further addressed and mitigated by our existing legislation, regulations and building approval processes. As such, it is imperative that these systems are all-encompassing, agile, effective, and proactive so that future tragedies can be prevented.


Innovation has been present throughout human history with remarkable feats of engineering still observed today. More recent innovations such as machines, Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and mobile devices have completely transformed the construction industry over the last half century with reduced time and labour, increased efficiency, and communication. However, the progress of innovation can often outpace regulations set in place.

One such example that comes to mind is the use of combustible cladding on the Grenfell Tower, London, which had resulted in the devastating fire that occurred in 2017, only two years after the building was approved by fire safety inspectors. After the incident, there were significant changes made to the British regulations to prevent future tragedies of a similar nature. Recently, on 23 February 2024, a similar incident occurred in Valencia, Spain where a fire engulfed the exterior of two large apartment buildings. Parallels could be drawn from the two separate tragedies as the Spanish fire safety regulations get updated. However, it is expected that the construction industry and the associated regulations and building approval processes to be all-encompassing, agile, effective, and proactive so that tragedies can be limited or prevented.

Hazards of Innovation in the Construction Industry

With any innovation, the potential hazards must also be considered, with the imperative being to reduce harm and preserve life. One such innovation that revolutionised the health and safety of the construction industry was the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Whilst it is less glamourous than the other innovations in this article, it has proven to have a profound affect in the industry. PPEs were introduced in 1992 under the UK’s Health and Safety at Work etc. Act which commenced in 1974. A performance review of the Act in 2008 found that the number of fatal injuries to employees in the UK fell by 73% and reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70% between the years 1974 and 2007.

Despite the use of PPE in the modern age, there is still a need for increased safety and awareness on construction sites with 14% of worker deaths (3rd highest) and 12% of serious claims (2nd highest) occurring on construction sites in Australia in 2022 across all industries. New innovations in PPE or the other innovations to be discussed may transform the construction industry again to not only deliver safe working environments but also living and recreational spaces for society.

As technology develops faster than ever before, regulations cannot keep pace and the need for regulations to be future proof becomes a necessity. The use of Building Information Management (BIMs), digital twins, digital as-builts and prefabrication has increased efficiency and reduced time, material waste, labour, and mistakes. The development of these fast-paced technologies demand buildings to be innovative in their design, construction, materials, and processes. One such example are tall wooden buildings also known as mass timber buildings. Mass timber buildings use glue laminated timber (glulam) that is timber pressed together with adhesive for beams and columns, and panels of cross-laminated timber (CLT) in which a layer of planks is oriented perpendicular to the previous layer and are pressed together by a layer of adhesive.

Challenges and Considerations in Adopting Mass Timber Buildings

The design and construction process of mass timber buildings vary significantly to the commonly built steel and concrete buildings of today. However, the construction industry uses an exorbitant amount of sand, and it is gradually being depleted. Timber is considered a sustainable and renewable resource and its use in construction reduces construction costs, improves energy efficiency. Sometimes, there are regulatory incentives for buildings that are more sustainable and greener. However, the use of the timber raises concerns by way of its fire hazard properties; being a combustible material. This raises a number of concerns around the use of timber in large scale construction and its application in skyscrapers in the near future.

Currently, Australia's National Construction Code (NCC) limits or prohibits the use of combustible materials within certain structures based on the type of construction required for the building. Thus, should a massive timber building be proposed, the entire building would be considered non-compliant and will need to be subject to a Performance Solution. The Performance Solution must demonstrate compliance with the NCC Performance Requirements and satisfy Authorities Having Jurisdiction before the building can be approved for construction.

Fire Safety Challenges Posed by Electric Vehicles

The rise in electric vehicles (EVs) stems largely from its environmental benefits such as reduced fuel consumption, little to no emissions, higher efficiency, and reduced traffic noise. However, these new technologies have posed new challenges for underground carparks such as insufficient ventilation rates, appropriate fire suppression systems and fire resistance levels (FRLs) of structural components in the scenario of thermal runaway resulting in the generation of flammable and toxic vapours, fire spread between vehicles and jet-like flames emitting from the underside of EVs directed at structural columns.

Up until recently, carparks have been designed for combustion engines but with the change in NCC 2022 where buildings must have provisions to facilitate future installations of on-site renewable energy generation and storage and electric vehicle charging equipment, the risks associated with EVs in underground carparks have been elevated. Thus, it has become more common to see Building Code of Australia (BCA) assessments include EVs and EV charging equipment in new buildings as a special hazard under BCA Clauses E1D17 and E2D21 as recommended by Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) in their Position Statement of Electric Vehicles (EV) and EV Charging Equipment in the Built Environment dated 20/12/2022. These special hazards are then captured as Performance Solutions in which it is assessed to determine whether the proposed fire safety measures adequately address and mitigate the risks associated with EVs and EV charging equipment.

Whilst EVs have been somewhat considered in the building approval process, smaller devices of similar technology such as electric scooters and bicycles are not regulated in building designs and their risks are less likely to be considered despite the recent incidents of these devices catching fire. The increase of electric scooter and bicycle charging and storage in residential areas poses a substantial risk as they are often closer to sleeping quarters than EVs and their manufacturing standards are not to the same quality and regulatory requirements as EVs. Thus, the need for guidance and regulations to reduce and mitigate the risks associated with these innovations are more prevalent than ever.

As new innovations are released to the public, it is commonly assumed that the products have been tested and are safe for use. As such, our innovations are now outpacing the techniques, frameworks and regulations that have previously limited tragedies and kept society safe. This escalates the demand for approaches to curb the risks, especially for new products containing these fire hazards, such as higher quality standards, manufacturing regulations, extensive testing and risk assessments before their use.


It is the nature of human beings to innovate and improve but our innovations can often come hand-in-hand with unrealised risks. It is imperative that traditional practices, regulations, and legislations are reviewed for their effectiveness and that innovations undergo extensive testing and risk assessments prior to adoption. Tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower and Valencia fires should serve as reminders that existing systems can always be improved and that regulations and building approval processes need to be all-encompassing, agile, effective, and proactive so that tragedies can be avoided.