SkyCity fire – Expert Reaction

A fire in the under-construction SkyCity convention centre has burnt through the night.

Reports suggest it was started as a result of construction work and the fire caught in the seven-storey building’s roof.

The SMC gathered expert comment on the fire, feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Dr Sandra Goh, lecturer, Tourism and Events, AUT, comments:

“One of the immediate impacts from the fire would be the bookings that have already been committed or projected for 2020. The recovery would need to be fast in terms of reconstructing the venue, in order to get the project ready to leverage on the 36th America’s Cup in 2021, as business and incentive events tend to happen around major events where corporate incentive programmes from local, regional and international hosts are not uncommon.
“In a time like this, I see the opportunity for Auckland Convention Bureau, SkyCity, PCO (Professional Conference Organisers), and other event organisers, to work together to creatively present Auckland. There are many unique venues in Auckland that could be proposed as an alternative to a purpose-built convention venue. The land of the long white cloud has no lack of space to create a unique experience. A roof might have been sacrificed, but business should be as usual to keep the event sector going.”
No conflict of interest.

Dr Kevin Frank, Fire Research Engineer, BRANZ, comments:

“Fire is, unfortunately, a relatively common risk during construction. The recent Notre Dame cathedral fire in France is an example of a fire occurring during construction activities, as was the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992. There have been other recent lower-profile fires during construction in New Zealand, such as the Ferrier Institute fire in Lower Hutt. The consequences are most often property and economic losses, but they can be very severe.

“Buildings are vulnerable during construction because often not all the fire protection measures intended for day-to-day use of the building are fully in place. ‘Hot work’ construction activities are common and involve potential ignition sources (e.g. welding, torching).

“The risk is best managed by implementing and adhering to good processes. Establishing fire protection measures like fire separations and sprinkler systems as soon as possible can help. Implementing a fire watch, particularly during and after hot work processes, can provide early detection and prevention.

“It is difficult to determine how much the construction will be set back by until the fire is extinguished and the damage can be fully established. Often the water damage will be greater than the actual fire damage, particularly when the fire starts high in the building.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Geoff Thomas, School of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The Sky City fire occurred during construction, which is one of the three most dangerous times for a building in terms of fire safety, the other two being during alterations and demolition.

“The reasons these are the most dangerous times, is because that fire safety systems such as automatic fire sprinklers, automatic fire detection such as heat or smoke detection may not have been installed or are isolated (turned off) through all, or the part of the building where the building work is being carried out. Fire resistant separations between floors and to fire escape stairs may not be in place or are incomplete. At the same time hot work procedures such as cutting, grinding, welding, and torch on roofing may be taking place.

“The video I have seen from the media appears to show the roof cladding itself burning. This implies that rather than being a steel or concrete roof it is a membrane which are normally a form of modified bitumen. This product is similar to the tar used on roads, and is combustible, but difficult to ignite. Some types of modified bitumen membrane roofs are ‘torched on’ using gas torches or have seams that are joined after heating from a gas torch.

“It is not possible to be certain of the cause of the fire at this time however Fletcher Building have stated that the fire started where a blow torch type tool was being used on bitumen to seal roof joints and there was no active alarm system on upper levels. Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) area commander Geoff Purcell was stated as saying ‘the fire…was being fuelled by straw-like material sandwiched between the waterproof roof and plywood ceiling’.

“When such work is being carried out, precautions to avoid fire including checking for flammable materials prior to using a gas torch and providing suitable portable extinguishers is recommended. This is a possible cause of this fire, but is certainly not the only one and the facts should become apparent after Fire and Emergency New Zealand complete the fire investigation.

“Thankfully there were no public in the building at the time and all the workers managed to escape safely. This may not necessarily be the case in a building undergoing alteration, with other occupants in the building, especially if the conditions of the Certificate of Public Use are not adhered to. It has been known during alterations for contractors to take shortcuts such as unnecessarily isolating fire alarm systems, not replacing fire doors into stairwells or removing door closers to fire doors protecting stairwells.

Conflict of interest statement: I was engaged by Fletcher Construction to act as a regulatory peer reviewer for Certificate of Public Use applications for a past project. I have also worked as a peer review for fire engineering design on other Fletcher Construction projects, although I am not currently engaged by Fletcher Construction.

Professor John Tookey, School of Engineering, Computer & Mathematical Science, AUT, comments:

“Construction is a risky business both financially and physically. Yesterday’s fire at the new convention centre in Auckland underlined this once again. Commercial construction sites have a range of risk factors coming together to make fire a serious threat. Subcontracted companies and operatives working for short periods in unfamiliar environments. Potentially dangerous processes involving cutting and forming of materials at high temperatures. Combustible materials either awaiting installation as new additions, or removal as waste offcuts. Incomplete fire suppression systems awaiting commission – so a fire once started is harder to fight. All conspire to present extensive fire hazards on any commercial construction site.

“There has been a substantial litany of construction related fires to hit major projects globally over recent years. Renovators at Windsor Castle in the UK caused a huge fire that burned for 12 hours. Similarly, workers on the reconstruction of the Mackintosh School of Art in Glasgow started a fire that almost completed destroyed this architectural icon. Ironically the reconstruction work was needed to repair the effects of a previous accidental blaze. Most recently the world looked on in horror as renovations work at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris resulted in damage likely to take decades to make good.

“The ramifications of the SkyCity Convention Centre fire are yet to be established. Losses as a result of the direct effects of the fire are set to be huge. The consequential effects of smoke and water damage are likely to be every bit as substantial if not more. When these losses and the business-related cashflow impact of cancelled conferences etc are calculated, the final bill could see the sky as the limit.

“In the final analysis, the future of the SkyCity project is in the hands of the underwriters and loss adjusters involved. The convention centre has been a ground zero for the financial exposure of Fletcher Construction over recent years. There is no doubt that the company is very keen to see the back of this project. However, it is not hard to imagine that this troubled project is likely to see a future sequence of litigation related to liability. Unfortunately, this is one set to run and run.”

No conflict of interest declared.