The aftermath of a fire that tore through flammable aluminium composite cladding on a 63-storey hotel in Dubai on New Years Eve 2015.

UPDATED 19 February 2016: This week’s findings by the Victorian Building Authority of widespread use of non-compliant of fire-prone cladding in high rise apartment buildings is appalling enough but according to the Fire Protection Association of Australia the problem could be national.

“This cladding was used in every city that has had property booms over the past 10 to 15 years,” an FPA spokesman told The Fifth Estate. 

That includes the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney, and Perth. Of these cities, only Perth has undertaken an audit, he said, finding several buildings non-compliant.

  • See update below for news that 2500 apartment buildings in Sydney could be implicated using the suspect products

“This is a national problem.”

At least 51 per cent of the 170 buildings audited by the VBA in its External Wall Cladding Audit were found to be non-compliant.

Chief executive of the FPA Scott Williams said the audit highlighted a “legacy of neglect by building authorities to educate the industry and enforce regulatory requirements”.

“To have non-compliance at this level clearly shows that there has been no incentive for building practitioners to comply with the rules, and no enforcement to ensure they do so,” he said.

“We are pleased these dangerous non-compliances have now been revealed, but this level of non-compliance of a single building element begs the question: What other non-compliances exist and why has ongoing auditing and enforcement not occurred as a routine program to monitor the industry?

“Victorians cannot have confidence that their buildings are safe and that is not good enough.”

Practitioners under fire

The VBA said it would consider further actions, including the investigation of building practitioners involved in multiple instances of non-compliance identified through the audit. It will also consider an extension of the cladding audit to areas beyond the criteria originally used.

It said that in consultation with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and City of Melbourne it was determined that despite the non-compliance, all of the buildings were safe to occupy with one exception of Harvest Apartments.

Harvest’s body corporate was made to undertake emergency remediation measures, which had to be paid for by the apartment owners.

Is it safe, really?

In the case of cladding non-compliance, the published results of the audit do not explain the type of non-compliance.

The FPA spokesman said in the instances where buildings were deemed safe to occupy, the non-compliant cladding might not have been installed in the same continuous way as seen in Lacrosse and Harvest, reducing the risk of the kind of major blaze seen at Lacrosse and also in Dubai on New Years Eve. Or the cladding could be located in areas that are not near a potential ignition source, or only on the first three levels.

The VBA in its report on the audit said that some of the buildings had been deemed safe to occupy on the basis of sufficient fire protection measures to reduce spread and protect occupants, such as sprinkler systems or internal fire walls.

The FPA spokesman said that as these types of measures were minimum legal requirements under the building code for any residential building taller than 25 metres in height, the VBA or Metropolitan Building Surveyor using them as a reason to deem a building safe to occupy is still not good enough.

The code provides a minimum code for safety, he said. Fire measures installed and working should be the case in any building, as they are existing and mandatory.

“They shouldn’t be held up to make non-compliance okay.”

Balcony sprinklers now law in Victoria

In December, the VBA announced a change to the Victorian version of the National Construction Code that now makes sprinklers mandatory on all covered balconies of residential buildings, hotels, healthcare buildings and aged care buildings.

The aim is to help prevent the spread of fire up a building facade or into the interior.  Balconies are the site of many potential ignition sources, such as things stored under airconditioning compressors, which started the Lacrosse fire, and BBQs or other occupant activities.

The FPA spokesman said this was a “bandaid solution” that effectively makes using non-compliant flammable cladding products acceptable.

“It doesn’t address the safety issue.”

Mr Williams said the association continued to echo the concerns of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade about the “massive, systemic regulatory failure that has led us to this point”.

“Now that the full extent of these problems have been revealed in Victoria, we want to know what steps will be taken to ensure such an alarming level of safety risk never occurs again.”

Proper inspection and consequences for non-compliance are crucial

The balcony sprinkler mandate certainly doesn’t address the systemic issues around inspection and certification.

While the Victorian government last year amended the code to make it no longer business as usual for the builder to appoint the inspector, this does not mean they can’t if the client or owner would prefer the builder do it.

The FPA wants it to be mandatory for independent surveyor inspections to be carried out to ensure compliance.

“I can never understand that we allow private surveyors to be employed by a builder to sign off on a building. We want to see that changed,” the FPA spokesman said.

The rules are only as good as their enforcement, he said. The FPA is hoping the results of the VBA and BPB investigation into the builder of Lacrosse will result in an outcome that proves a real deterrent to builders regarding delivering non-compliant buildings in future.

The bottom line should be delivering a legal product, not price

The FPA spokesman said many of the issues have also arisen because the industry has been focused on delivering the cheapest product, not the best product.

“Price currently has been one of the only things driving purchasing decisions, but compliance should be driving purchasing decisions,” he said.

Fire walls another emerging non-compliance hot spot

Non-compliant fire walls appears to be another emerging issue, with the Building Practitioners Board this month fining a builder $45,000 and imposing a three-year ban on applying for a building practitioner licence due to a range of compliance issues the VBA termed “gross negligence” and “gross incompetence”.

The amount of the fine and the suspension term are the maximum the Building Practitioners Board of the VBA can impose.

The builder, David Brayer, operating as Statbay Pty Ltd, was the corporate builder contracted to build 69 townhouses in the Rangeview Estate in Diamond Creek.

A VBA investigation on behalf of the BPB found major defects in the buildings, including fire walls between rooms that could have caused a serious risk to life had a fire started.

“The VBA welcomes the decision regarding the builder’s conduct and will continue to work with the Nillumbik Council to assist the owners in rectifying the defects in their homes,” VBA chief executive Prue Digby said.

UPDATE 19 February 2016: A media statement from Strata Community Australia issued on Friday 19 February, said:

Australia’s $1.2 trillion strata sector says it is alarmed by reports that dangerous flammable building materials now appear to have been used widely in major inner city commercial and apartment buildings over the last decade.

According to reports, the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment is concerned that up to 2500 buildings in the Greater Sydney region contain the highly flammable cladding notorious for causing towering infernos.

This comes a day after the Victorian Building Authority confirmed that over 50% of buildings audited so far had been found with the non-compliant cladding.

Strata Community Australia (SCA) is the peak industry body for Strata and Community Title Management and bosses say there is no doubt this is now a national issue, with massive implications for property owners and managers.

SCA says it is considering seeking legal advice as to potential liability regarding the use of dangerous and faulty building materials.

It is calling for the formulation of an immediate action plan when all State Building Ministers meet on Friday on the Gold Coast.

Strata Community Australia chief executive Kim Henshaw says this issue resembles a systemic failure regarding building defects, and property owners and managers in Sydney and around the state will rightly demand a quick response from the State Government.

“These reports suggest that tens of thousands of Sydney property stakeholders could be facing a grave safety risk, and we urge the Department of Planning and Environment to provide immediate advice to these people.”

“We’ve already witnessed owners of one building being asked to “pick up the tab” for a rectification bill totalling $20 million, which averages out to $40,000 per apartment, so imagine the financial hardship to be placed on Sydney strata property owners if these reported numbers are confirmed.”

Mr Henshaw says more than any other group, owners and property managers need a say in the decisions made on this crisis.

“The reason we’ve advocated so hard for the protection of owners and managers as this issue has grown, is because it will affect them more than anyone.”

“When it comes to footing the bill, it will be them that the local council pursues rectification with and most importantly, when it comes to safety, it will be their homes being put on the line by this highly dangerous product.”

Mr Henshaw says the blaze that brought this issue into focus; acts as a perfect example of why there needs to be action at a state level nationwide to tackle how owners and managers are protected when their building is defective.

“Owners of the Lacrosse Apartments complex in Docklands that caught fire in 2013 were served with a $20 million rectification notice from local council late last year; which is ideologically wrong, but it was the only option for the City of Melbourne to take.”

“We can’t have laws that assign building rectification costs to groups who had no involvement in the construction process, especially with the reported number of buildings in Sydney with this cladding being so high.”

Mr Henshaw says a Senate Inquiry set to conclude in March should deliver long term solutions for keeping imported, non-compliant materials out the country, but State Governments still have a job to do in providing common sense laws around the issue.

“SCA wants to see an immediate focus placed on how the current legislative framework around building defects protects those devoid of fault or liability, the owners and managers.

“Furthermore, there should be consideration for how we best stop our local industry from using these dangerous materials, ranging from stronger audit procedures, to harsh punishments for those risking lives.”

A report in The Australian published 18 February 2016 said a document marked “in confidence” from the NSW Department of Planning and Environment indicates up to 2500 high-rise buildings in Sydney could contain the material in question. The newspaper report said:

The note formed part of the agenda papers for a September 10, 2015, meeting of NSW Planning and Environment officials.

It reveals the department was aware of the potentially high number of buildings containing the deadly cladding one month before it told the state opposition that it was “not possible to identity how many buildings contain the affected material”.

The department refused to confirm the details of the briefing note yesterday and referred questions to NSW Fair Trading, which responded with: “There have been no reported incidents or complaints related to the use of this material in buildings in NSW.”

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  1. We have regulators qbcc,vcat. Defects are known. Government are responsilble for coverups because regulators want to refuse insurance.
    Home warranty insurance qbcc in charge whilst a building regulator meant to police all vuilsing laws and have stats kn defects,faults. They care about refusing do that their intent is to leave damage,defects, and hide cause..e.g. defective shadowclad to crawl to large companies no care for safety, danger to public, inhabitants. No accident that these are certified..
    Get rid of insurance from a building regulator dont want to lose their corrupt systemic fraud which destroys lives,houses.
    Dont oretend u dont know

  2. I disagree that compliance is muddy or out-dated. Polyethylene core aluminium composite panels have never been approved for multi-storey buildings in Australia, and probably never will. The core is just too combustible. And in the case of the Docklands Lacrosse building, the panels are also fixed with double sided tape, not mechanically fixed. Again I know of no reputable manufacturer who would have agreed to this method of fixing for a 23 storey building.

    Sometimes mistakes happen and the wrong product is installed. Until the regulator understands this and enforces compliance, the issue will not move forward.

  3. As far as I understand we have an outdated fire testing standard which was compiled long before high-rise buildings started in Australia and has not been updated since. It is not appropriate for testing light weight facade systems and is largely meaningless. Perhaps all those Boards could get off their comfortable chairs and instead of criticizing the industry for bad behaviour, do something about updating our standards – most of them read like they have been written in 19th, not even 20th century. BCA is equally a discgrace – try finding out what applies to what. The outer cladding must be non-combustible, but it is OK that thermal insulation (which is generally closer to the potential fire source) is OK if it is a ‘little bit combustible’. There really need to be three different systems for approval – one for buildings up to 25m , one for 25m – 15 storey, and than another for 15 stories and higher. The last one should have the whole wall assembly fire tested, but not against some antiquated standard.The risks are vastly different in these categories and what is good for the goose does not have to be good for the gander

  4. The issue of “compliance” is very muddy. Designers (architects and engineers) may select and specify materials, often using performance criteria. It is not their job to check compliance ~ indeed, they are often no longer “on the job” when construction commences. Contractors and sub-contractors proceed in good faith, commonly relying on product manufacturer’s data. The CSIRO no longer undertakes independent testing. The qualifications, skills and even availability of building surveyors and building inspectors varies between municipalities and States and the process for aspirants to meet the demand is so convoluting that serious shortages already exist. Besides, it is not their job either to certify compliance on site. The industry faces many layers of process rebuilding before the public can ever feel confident that these sorts of events will not re-occur ~ the recently discovered hidden asbestos content of materials is jet another case in point.