The failure of all three tiers of government to deal with the problems associated with non-complying aluminium cladding has created a massive trust deficit amongst strata owners who’ve been left to pick up the tab for a problem of others’ creation.
These failures have occurred over the course of many years when there was ample cause to act and evidence to warrant urgency.
Yet a familiar government response has met each new wave of concern, whether it be problems with the implementation and policing of the building code, the proliferation of defects in apartments, or the breakdown in the approval and certification process. When the media sniffs a scandal, the government calls an inquiry. Experts give evidence, the media gets bored and a report eventually is tabled and left to gather dust. Problem solved and business goes on as normal.
Except the problem remains real and present for strata owners. Lannock convened the Strata Fire Safety Forum in Sydney last month to provide those most affected and least considered with the expert information they need to make decisions about their properties. Faced with potentially crippling bills to rectify buildings with non-complying aluminium cladding there was a packed house of people hungry for information they could trust.
The forum revealed the worrying statistic that eight out of 10 buildings with aluminium cladding have non-compliant cladding. Armed with that information, strata owners should presume that if their building has aluminium cladding it is non-compliant unless and until proven otherwise.
But experience has shown that they should not wait for a letter from government or leave it to others in their strata to take action. It is a collective problem requiring collective action. It’s a problem that strata owners cannot ignore. They are not to blame for this situation but the onus is upon them to do something to fix it.
The NSW government has identified more than 1000 buildings that could be at risk, however the level of product tampering and outright fraud that our forum experts have encountered suggests owners can’t rely on paper records to prove themselves compliant.
The tardiness of a number of government inquiries has allowed a bad situation to become far worse than it needed to be. The Senate inquiry into non-complying building products finally issued an interim report more than two years after it began.
It recommended a total ban on the import of composite aluminium cladding products. Yet while they have been sitting, Australia has undergone a construction boom in which thousands of new apartments have been built with dangerous materials.
We’ve known it was a risk since the Lacrosse fire in Melbourne in 2014 and yet the matter is only now being taken seriously.
In the past year City of Sydney has seen the completion of 2247 apartments, Parramatta 4916 apartments, the newly formed Bayside Council area 3440 apartments and Canterbury-Bankstown 1853 apartments.
Of course the first priority has to be public safety and for this reason owners corporations should work with their strata managers to begin the process of having their buildings inspected and audited for fire safety compliance.
Rectification of cladding is one issue but consideration should also be given to other solutions to safeguard lives in the event of fire. Buildings below 25 metres are not required to have sprinklers, however owners may decide that it is better to be safe than sorry, particularly if the building has aluminium cladding.
This is the time when owners corporations need to seek out the very best expert advice, mindful that “experts” certified their buildings for occupation in the first place. Strata owners should also be talking to properly qualified and reputable fire engineers.
They should ensure that their efforts to identify the status of their building and its compliance are properly minuted and that reports are available to all existing and prospective owners. And they would be well-advised to seek legal advice to see if they have a case for compensation or the recovery of costs.
Of course the description “properly qualified” in relation to specialists is loaded with ambiguity, something the NSW government highlighted when it announced changes to fire safety regulations that came into effect on 1 October.
This quote from the NSW Planning website sums it up nicely: “The current regulations do not currently describe the attributes of a properly qualified person, leaving building owners to determine this on a case-by-case basis. If the necessary checks are not taken building owners may inadvertently select the services of someone who is not properly qualified. In this case, there is no guarantee the owner’s obligations under the regulations are being met, which could result in the building being unsafe.
“Changes to the regulations will eventually provide building owners with greater clarity and certainty on how to identify a person or persons competent to undertake fire safety statement assessments and inspections.”
That’s where we again run head-on into the trust issue. Eventually we’ll be enlightened about who is competent, who is qualified to assess competence and what attributes constitute competence. Until then, strata owners have the added burden of conducting additional due diligence into who they should entrust and engage with these important investigations.
Paul Morton is managing director of Lannock Strata Finance.