Four Corners has done it again – ripping the bandage off yet another festering scandal with an expose on the “tens of thousands” of buildings over four storeys in Australia that may have flammable cladding.

The issue has been known for some years now, since the 2014 Lacrosse Fire at Melbourne’s Docklands, covered extensively by The Fifth Estate. But it took the catastrophic deaths of the Grenfell Tower in London disaster for Australia to start tackling the issue with greater urgency.

The Combustible report included interviews with suppliers, one of whom said Mitsubishi, the manufacturer of an aluminium composite cladding with a polyethylene core that had been sold to Australian customers, made him aware that the product was flammable.

As a result, by 2000, his company SGI Architectural, switched to supplying only cladding with a more fire-resistant core.

The PE core is basically a petroleum-based plastic. In the Four Corners report it was compared to having petrol poured over the facade of a building.

This partly explains why the fires spread so rapidly, as was seen with the recent – and second – blaze at the Torch Tower in Dubai on 3 August 2017.

Industry responds

The Property Council of Australia responded to the Four Corners report with a call for better supply chain practices.

Chief executive Ken Morrison said all the major property companies were working together with government agencies to improve property standards and deal with non-conforming products.

“We are seeing concerted and considered action from the Building Ministers’ Forum, the Senior Officers’ Group on NCBPs, the Australian Building Codes Board, Standards Australia, as well as state governments and their relevant fire and consumer protection agencies,” Mr Morrison said.

The drawn-out Senate Inquiry into NCBPs is also expected to report this week.

Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia are currently undertaking audits of their large buildings.

A Senate Committee inquiry into non-conforming building products

NSW has established an inter-agency Fire Safety and External Wall Cladding Taskforce.

Queensland has also been undertaking an audit, and last month passed tough legislation that puts the onus on the entire supply chain to ensure conforming products are used in a compliant manner.

Mr Morrison said public safety was the priority of both industry and regulators.

“Many industry participants aren’t just reviewing the buildings they own, they are also reviewing the buildings they played a role in constructing up to a decade ago.”

He said PCA members were reporting “very few instances of genuine safety risk”.

The roll-call is growing

However, the roll-call of prestige projects around the nation where flammable cladding has been identified is growing.

Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, for example, failed a second round of testing on its cladding and the cladding will now be removed and replaced – a costly process expected to take around 18 months.

In Adelaide, the SAHMRI building, the New Royal Adelaide Hospital, the Adelaide Convention Centre and the Adelaide Oval are among 77 buildings identified as requiring further investigation.

Mr Morrison said the industry supported tougher standards for the certification of building product – as well as a national register of compliant products.

“Currently there is a gap between national standards and state government enforcement. This is a gap that the current issue around cladding has identified as a missing link and we must address it”.

Industry warnings and calls for third-party verification

NATSPEC, an industry body that works on improving the construction quality and productivity of the built environment, responded to the issues with a strong warning.

Chief executive Richard Choy said designers should specify the minimum required technical properties and product standards, and the required evidence of conformity in their construction specification, in order to protect their clients and the end users of the built environment.

If they do not, they may become complicit in non-compliance and could potentially face legal action, he said.

It also launched a National Construction Products Register to provide information for specifiers, builders, designers and others in the construction sector with verified information on compliant construction products.

Mr Choy also stressed the importance of supply chain accountability – particularly putting the onus on the front end team of architects, designers and specifiers.

He said the use of non-conforming products, or products such as combustible cladding being used inappropriately, had affected the safety and construction quality of Australian buildings.

“Materials and products move through multiple organisations before they are finished in a built project. Time and cost pressures mean that there is no single body in a position to be responsible for all conformity and compliance checking of the final project,” he said.

“The NCPR by itself will not ensure that a product is conforming or compliant. It can only help mitigate some of the risk and provide a focus on the need for product conformity.

“It will support the great work being done by industry organisations. Everyone in the construction supply chain needs to do their bit. If someone knows conformity will be checked, they will take extra care.”

Insulation Australasia said non-compliant building products posed “the single greatest threat to the construction industry”, calling for a system of third-party verification for building materials.

“Since our organisation formed in late 2011, we have sought and failed to find the ear of regulators on the topic of third party verification,” chair Scott Gibson said. “Many of our member businesses are Australian manufacturers fighting the daily blight of non-conforming imports in the building products market. The appetite for change has never been greater than right now. What is needed is the political leadership and courage to do the right thing and effect that change.”

The Australian Steel Institute agrees.

“The current regulatory system confuses who is ultimately responsible,” ASI chief executive Tony Dixon said. “And the existing ‘big stick’ at the end of the process when building certification is enacted is problematic as it is too late and often too costly to address issues properly.

“Third-party certification of building products and processes to requirements directly linked to the level of risk and complexity of a building under construction is the most appropriate way to ensure risk of building failure is minimised.”

Master Builders Australia chief executive Denita Wawn said the challenge was to improve the “extensive and robust” regulatory regime that ensured the safe use of building products.

“This is fundamentally the responsibility of government, but requires a concerted effort from all those in the building and construction supply chain,” she said.

She said MBA had established a national taskforce to improve outcomes, and was calling for a centrally administered building product certification system.

The Australian Building Codes Board last month released a draft out-of-cycle amendment to the 2016 National Construction Code that responds to concerns around fire risk and non-compliant product use.

The proposed amendment is an outcome of the June 2017 Building Ministers Forum meeting. The BMF directed the ABCB to expedite completing and adopting agreed actions involving any changes to the NCC.

The amendment includes introducing a new verification method for external wall assemblies, increased stringency for sprinkler protection of balconies, clarifying language in the code for external wall claddings and revision of the National Construction Code’s evidence of suitability provisions.

Comments on the draft are open until 10 September 10.

Not just Australia affected

Flammable cladding is not only an issue for Australia. There have been some massive blazes in the United Arab Emirates also, where towers have exploded into infernos up an entire facade in a matter of minutes.

One of the major manufacturers of ACP in the Middle East has already gone public with an admission of accountability and a pledge to cease manufacturing PE-cored panels.

Shaji Ul Mulk, who heads up ACP manufacturer Alubond USA, told the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National in February 2016 that his company had manufactured and supplied flammable ACP for buildings across the UAE, as well as into Europe and South East Asia.

One of these had already demonstrated how flammable the cladding is – the dramatic New Years Eve 2015 fire at The Address Downtown hotel in Dubai.

“This is not an Alubond story – it is a national story,” Mr Ul Mulk said. “It is well known there are hundreds of buildings at risk – it is just a matter of bad luck as to which one catches fire.”

He said that almost all ACP manufactured before 2012 only had low-density polyethylene cores.

He also said the silicone used to seal gaps between the panels could also contribute to flame spread.

His company has since ceased manufacture of flammable panel products, and only produces the more expensive fire-resistant mineral core products.

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  1. Is this an indirect result of the tendering process in construction, where the process encourages a race to lowest price and contractors must still find a method or product to deliver their obligations and still make money?