The official communique of last Friday’s Building Ministers’ Forum may have been vague on detail about actions to be taken on dodgy use of building materials implicated in fire risk to apartment towers, but the Australian Building Codes Board has released a series of actions it will take at the BMF’s request.
Meanwhile, the Australian Industry Group has backed stronger audits and said that surveillance and audit by regulators were “the most critical elements to ensuring product conformance and compliance”.
Measures to be taken by the ABCB include considering mandatory third-party accredited certification of cladding materials, a much more stringent option than the mandatory certification it considered last year, which could have allowed self-certification by product manufacturers. It will also look into developing a new verification method referencing a new Australian Standard for determining the fire combustibility of wall claddings and wall assemblies.
The BMF communique said the work the ABCB is commencing has arisen in response to the Lacrosse fire, and is also informed by the findings of the Victorian Building Authority’s External Wall Cladding Audit in Melbourne.
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“Ministers agreed in principle that the [ABCB] will support measures to address the risks specifically associated with cladding used in high rise buildings,” the communique said.
“In principle support was also given for improvements to the regulatory framework to enhance the powers of building regulators to respond to instances of non-conforming building products, developing education strategies to better inform consumers and building industry participants and encourage greater responsibility in the safe use of building products.”
A spokeswoman for BMF chair Karen Andrews, federal assistant minister for science, said the BMF had also accepted an offer from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with assistance from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, to establish information sharing between the Commonwealth, states and territories. A resolution has been made to fast-track this and report back within two months.
The spokeswoman said that to support the states and territories in undertaking compliance and enforcement activities in relation to non-conforming building products, the DIBP proposed an arrangement where import data collected by the department could be provided to regulators.
“Where a state [or] territory regulator identifies a safety or compliance issue relating to an imported product, the regulator could request specific information from the DIBP to assist in its compliance activities,” she said.
If the department was given information about certain goods of concern imported by a particular entity or sold by an identified supplier, the department’s imports information could potentially be used to identify who else in Australia a supplier may have supplied the same or similar products to. It could also possibly pinpoint when the goods were sold, what volumes have entered the country and the port of entry.
ABCB general manager Neil Savery told The Fifth Estate that the ministers last year had asked the ABCB to consider options for mandatory product certification for high risk products. Accreditation might be through certifying bodies such as the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand.
He said this was a substantial amount of work over six months to investigate options, however details of what was considered are confidential. The work included cost-benefit analysis for each option.
“It wasn’t a superficial exercise,” he said.
Mr Savery said there was a mechanism that allowed for a change to the NCC in response to the high-risk products issue before the next iteration is due in 2019.
The Intergovernmental Agreement recognises things can come in that are extremely urgent, Mr Savery said.
The clause that allows the ABCB to consider an out-of-cycle amendment requires that proposed changes regard an important matter of public health and safety, he said, and it has to be unanimously agreed to by ABCB board members.
If the building ministers decide after the work the ABCB will be undertaking over the next six months that a change to the code in response to the non-compliant use of high-risk products is warranted, it could happen, Mr Savery said.
The ABCB is not undertaking the work around non-conforming products arising from the BMF meeting, he said. This will be done by the Senior Officials Group, which comprises senior ministry staff from all states and territories as well as the Commonwealth.
Mr Savery said the BMF did not specifically discuss or suggest measures around ensuring building certifiers were independent of builders as part of addressing non-compliance, a remedy widely suggested by industry observers.
He said it was a good idea, however it was not something within the scope of the ABCB to bring about, as each state made its own decisions on these issues.
“The states and territories have varying degrees of strictness about the degree of separation between builders and certifiers,” Mr Savery said.
The problem is getting worse, AIG says
The Australian Industry Group welcomed the BMF’s resolution to see non-conforming products addressed.
“The increasing incidence of non-conforming product in the marketplace – including recent reports of up to 64 building sites with asbestos-tainted concrete fibre sheeting – show that the problem is only worsening,” AIG chief executive Innes Willox said.
Ministers clearly acknowledged the problem, he said.
“Governments have a central role in terms of leadership and regulatory powers and the Building Ministers’ communique puts welcome emphasis on the importance of cooperation with industry and consumers.”
AIG called for ministers to consider arrangements for accepting non-conforming incident reports from industry, and it supported the Construction Product Alliance’s call for a confidential reporting system to be established.
“Such an approach has proved valuable in other countries.”
AIG’s view was that surveillance and audit by regulators were “the most critical elements to ensuring product conformance and compliance”.
“With declining resourcing of our regulators and an increasing incidence of unscrupulous suppliers, the current building regulatory system is struggling to adapt to the new environment characterised by complex global supply chains,” Mr Willox said.
Actions the ABCB will be taking around fire risk in high-rise buildings, on which it is to report back to the BMF at its next meeting in six months’ time include:
Risks associated with cladding used in high rise buildings
1. Review the evidence of suitability provisions in Clause A2.2 of the NCC Volume One, which require that a product must be fit for purpose in its intended use, with a view to considering options that include mandatory accredited third party certification of cladding materials. This may lead to a change to the clause and would likely require a regulatory impact assessment.
2. Standards Australia, in consultation with the ABCB, industry and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority Council, has developed a new Australian Standard (AS 5113) that will provide a more accurate indication of the fire combustibility of wall claddings and wall assemblies, including aluminium composite panel. AS 5113 will be referenced in a new Verification Method that will enable industry to verify the fire performance of external cladding systems against the relevant Performance Requirement of the NCC. This will improve compliance, promote innovative solutions and ensure the required fire performance is achieved.
3. The Deemed to Satisfy Provisions of the NCC will continue to limit the use of combustible materials on external walls to buildings with a maximum of two storeys.
4. Review NCC provisions relating to the fire safety of external wall cladding and if necessary reword them to ensure they are more easily understood.
5. Develop and distribute a National Advisory Note on the appropriate selection and use of external wall cladding.
6. Develop education material on the appropriate selection and use of external wall cladding.
7. A draft Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement will be considered for release by the ABCB at its meeting on 3 March 2016, which covers a possible change to require sprinkler protection over covered balconies.
Non-compliant use of building product
8. Work with the Working Group of Senior Officers from the Commonwealth and the States to review NCC requirements related to high risk building products with a view to assessing the costs and benefits of mandating third party certification and establishing a national register for such products.
9. Develop a Product Assurance Handbook so the requirements of the evidence of suitability provisions of the NCC are understood.
10. CodeMark Certificates of Conformity will be made clearer as to what particular products it can be used for, as part of a package of improvements to the voluntary building product certification scheme.
11. In consultation with industry, advise on the practicality and feasibility of improved voluntary product compliance labelling.
12. Working with the states and territories to consider measures to enhance national regulatory harmonisation.