Culture and heritage


Fire, access and services - frequently asked questions


Do I have to upgrade my building every time the BCA is updated?

No. The Environment Planning and Assessment Act (EP&A Act)applies the BCA as the technical requirements to be met in:

  • new buildings; and
  • new building work only.

It does not apply the BCA retrospectively to existing buildings.

A council may address a perceived fire safety problem in an existing building with a fire upgrading order, which is served under Section 121B Order No. 6 of the EP&A Act.

Are there concessions from the need to conform to the BCA or DDA for heritage-listed buildings?

BCA does not apply if no building work or change of use is proposed. If building work is undertaken it is the new work that is subject to the application of the BCA. The heritage nature of the building would not provide any concession for the new work. However, the 'performance' basis of the BCA permits solutions other than those prescribed in the Deemed-to-Satisfy provisions (DTS).

The DDA incorporates consideration of its effect on existing buildings (see question 1 above).

How do I conform to the BCA?

The BCA does not apply to an existing building. If new work is proposed, the new work must comply.

The BCA is a Performance-based document under which the Performance Requirements are the mandatory component that must be complied with. Compliance may be achieved using one of two different methods:

Deemed-to-Satisfy Provisions (DTS): Detailed requirements for construction, set out in a prescriptive manner. This method provides the applicant/designer with certainty as when complied with, the provisions are "deemed" to meet the Performance Requirements.

Alternative Solution: An applicant/designer may propose a building solution that is demonstrated to meet the Performance Requirements using one of the Assessment Methods set out in the BCA. This method provides flexibility as the solution is not confined by prescriptive provisions. Many Alternative Solutions are developed using Fire Safety Engineering principles applied by appropriately qualified Fire Safety Engineers.

What sort of consultants are appropriate to assist me in presenting information to the local council about BCA issues? Where can I find them?

BCA consultants can help with BCA assessments, legislation and presenting information to councils. They can be found through the Institute of Building Surveyors or the Planning NSW Accreditation Scheme. For fire safety issues (70% of the BCA is regarding fire safety), a fire safety engineer can help develop alternative solutions other than those presented in the BCA as 'deemed to satisfy'. Fire safety engineers can be found through the Institute of Engineers. Heritage consultants listed on the Heritage Branch website and the Australian Institute of Architects website can also be used.

While heritage-listed buildings often do not comply with the "deemed-to-satisfy" requirements of the BCA, they can usually comply with the "performance requirements" by other means.

If my local council issues a notice of intention to serve an order on my heritage-listed property, do I have to seek approval under the Heritage Act?

If your property is listed on the State Heritage Register, council should already have referred the notice of intention to the Heritage Council. In the event that council issues the order, and it involves work that will materially affect the significance of the property, you will need to lodge a section 60 application once the actual scope of works is agreed with council. If the property is not on the State Heritage Register but is a heritage item under a local or regional environmental plan, no approval under the Heritage Act is required. However, Council's heritage planners would give due consideration of the heritage impacts.


What can I do if I am issued an order or notice under Section 121 of the EP&A Act ( orders)?

It is acceptable to negotiate with council on the method or methods for achieving the specified result. If your property is a listed heritage item, also ensure that council has complied with the requirement of Section 121S to assess the heritage impact of the notice before issuing it. Assuming that the notice has been correctly issued, you should make your own assessment of the requirements of the notice, especially where it specifies upgrading work. You may wish to seek assistance from consultants (such as fire engineers) experienced in BCA compliance in heritage buildings, who can assist with assessing existing performance and identifying alternative ways of satisfying the BCA. You should then discuss the notice with council and agree on an appropriate scope of work and timetable. You can seek advice from FASAP or in the last resort lodge an appeal in the Land and Environment Court.

What can be done to improve the fire resistance of the original doors in my heritage property? Do I have to remove them?

The principal aim of fire safety is to enable people to safely evacuate from a building. Heritage doors may not need to be removed or have their fire resistance rating increased if the safe evacuation of people from the buildings can be achieved by the implementation of other measures, such as fire suppression systems (sprinklers, inert gas, mist spray), early fire alarm warning systems, smoke control systems, and improved egress systems.

One of the principles of fire safety is compartmentation, i.e. isolating the smoke or flames close to the source of the fire so that people can safely escape from the rest of the building. Doors are usually the weak point in the compartmentation. There are several possible alternatives to replacing the doors, which need to be considered as part of an overall fire safety strategy for the place.

If fire rating is required of the door, assessment will be necessary. If the existing door achieves an adequate fire rating, then the door can remain unaltered. If, however, the door does not have an acceptable level of performance, it will require upgrading. The upgrade options are:

  • The Heritage Branch has details of a 'heritage door kit' which can be installed to improve the fire rating of the door. [See section in Technical Notes on this page].
  • Intumescent paint and smoke seals may be adequate to achieve the required level of performance for the specific building and case.
  • Improve other aspects of fire safety in the building such that the lower level of performance achieved by the door becomes acceptable.

Options 2 and 3 will require a Fire Safety Engineer with appropriate experience and expertise in heritage buildings to carry out the analysis and assist with finding appropriate upgrade strategies for the building.

I have some original fire doors [or fire rated windows) in my property and council require evidence of their resistance as part of an essential services report. I do not want to test one due to the cost. Does the panel have any knowledge of the fire resistance of older installations?

Although many of the door and window systems in heritage buildings are no longer manufactured, it does not mean that they do not perform well in fire. If they perform adequately, then there is no reason to change them. FASAP has information on various heritage fire safety systems, windows and doors, and number of historic technical papers dealing with methods of fire safety upgrading approved by councils in the past. The information may be acceptable to council, or it may require assessment and comment from a fire safety engineer and/or heritage architect as to how the information relates to the particular case.

How do I put in services like sprinklers, fire alarm and detection systems, air conditioning, water pipes, gas pipes or heat generating light systems in my heritage building?

Develop a co-ordinated services strategy for the building that minimises the need for new services. Be aware that many heritage buildings were constructed with inbuilt systems for natural lighting, ventilation and fire protection that can still be used effectively - make sure that you find out about all of them. If new services need to be installed, surface mounting usually does least damage to significant fabric. Existing cavities such as floor-ceiling spaces can often be used for reticulating services, provided that any disturbance is preceded by appropriate investigation, which may include archaeology. Environmental impact of the systems on the fabric in the longer term, eg. Humidity, temperature change, should be considered.

I'm converting my two-storey listed building to flats. Do I have to replace the ground floor ceilings to compartmentalise the individual residential units?

On upper levels of a building people can be unaware of a fire below them until it is too late to escape. For this reason it is considered vital to prevent fire spread between levels in buildings where there are separate occupancies.

Upgrading a ceiling to a fire resisting ceiling has been the traditional "least-expensive" method to provide a barrier that prevents fire spread in a reliable and proven way. The extent of upgrade to compartmentation will depend on the performance of the existing ceiling and floor systems. Such upgrades may include:

  • if the ceiling is not of particular heritage significance installing "extra layers" of gypsum plasterboard below the existing ceiling may be an option;
  • removing the floor boards from above and filling the floor cavity with a fire resisting infilling spray material;
  • an intumescent coating on the ceiling.

The ceiling may be able to be retained without upgrading the fire resistance level of the ceiling by taking an alternate approach that addresses fire suppression or evacuation as alternatives to fire compartmentalisation.

A change of use is being proposed for my heritage building and the local council is requiring some fire upgrading. Why does a relatively minor change trigger potentially a considerable amount of work?

When a change of use is proposed for an existing building - even if this does not require any alterations - the local council has an obligation to make sure that the fire safety requirements comply with the Building Code of Australia (BCA). This means that for most existing buildings some fire safety upgrading works will be required. If your building is heritage-listed, contact the council to discuss a method of compliance which will conserve the heritage fabric where possible.

When major alterations or additions are proposed for a building, including those relating to a change of use, the council may require the whole building to comply with the BCA. They will also consider if fire safety egress for occupants complies, and whether the property poses a threat of fire to surrounding buildings which may mean additional protection is required. When the building is of heritage significance these requirements may be negotiable with the council and alternative solutions may be acceptable. Download the document:

Proposed Changes to the Use of a Heritage Building; Provisions for Upgrading, Alterations and/or Changes of Use to Building Code of Australia Requirements (fasapchangeofuse.pdf, 70KB) for full details of the relevant EP&A Regulation and an explanation of its requirements.


As an owner of a historic building what must I do to comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimation Act? What discretion is there? Who makes that decision?

The Disability Discrimation Act (DDA)is a Commonwealth Act which makes it unlawful to discrimate against a person on the basis of a disability.

In many situations there are uncontrollable 'barriers' which prevent full compliance with the provision of the DDA, created by the original design and construction in a less sympathetic age e.g. in heritage buildings.

Once you think you should comply with the DDA, an owner of a historic building should take all reasonable action to ensure suitable means of independent access to their building for persons with a disability. In this respect, the concepts of "unjustifiable hardship" (Section 11 of the DDA) and "feasible alternatives" should be taken into account.

Having considered the above concepts, the building owners must provide an acceptable submission, incorporating an acceptable solution, and make an application to their local council for development approval (DA). If the building is registered under the Heritage Act, the local council wil refer it to the Heritage Council for assessment.

Further information on the Building Code of Australia (BCA) and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and how they relate to heritage buildings. (bcaddafurtherinfo.pdf, 94KB)

What proportion of an existing multi-unit residential property, which is on a statutory heritage list, needs to be accessible?

That depends on the classification of the building under the Building Code of Australia (BCA). Units in a residential flat building (Class 2) are private accommodation and are therefore not subject to the DDA, nor required to be accessible under the BCA. However, a public accommodation building (Class 3) such as a hotel/motel, is subject to the DDA and has requirements for the provision of access under the BCA. The BCA is not applicable to existing buildings. However the number of residential units which are required to be accessible currently for new buildings can be assessed under the provisions of the Building Code of Australia (Part D3), for the owner's consideration in meeting the DDA.

Further information on the Building Code of Australia (BCA) and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and how they relate to heritage buildings. (bcaddafurtherinfo.pdf, 94KB)

What access must be provided to heritage-listed shops where there are steps at the front? The fabric is significant and difficult to move without damage.

Where the owner wishes to meet the DDA, there are options that can be explored:

  • provision of a second public access elsewhere;
  • a temporary ramp;
  • a lightweight permanent ramp; or
  • controlled public access.

Your local council should be contacted to ascertain whether use of footpath space is a possible option.


Do I have to increase the height of handrails in a heritage-listed property in line with current BCA standards?

No, unless specifically ordered by the council. However, this will depend on the location of the handrails and the potential risks for users may lead to a decision to do so based on risk analysis. Because people nowadays are taller and heavier than their forebears, balustrades intended to prevent people falling from stairs or balconies need to be higher than they were in the past. However, if the stair or balcony is infrequently used, and the handrail is close to the required height, and the risk of injury from a fall is not excessive, a risk assessment may conclude that the existing situation is reasonably safe.

With handrails and balustrades that do not comply with the current BCA, there is a risk of someone falling over them, being injured and suing the owner. There are now several cases of large payouts for people injured in such a way. There are two options for handrails and balustrades in existing properties. The first is to upgrade them to meet the current BCA, in a way that is sympathetic to the heritage fabric. The second applies to balustrades around voids, and is to prevent access to the balustrade by providing some more effective barrier on the inside of the balustrade. For example, this could include display cabinets in a retail use.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012