Cladding might be in the spotlight in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, however, there could be a range of dodgy materials in our buildings, according to one expert, and we might not know until things go catastrophically wrong.
Dr Darryl O’Brien, head of built environment courses at Central Queensland University, said the complexity of global supply networks meant there were no quick fixes to the issue of non-conforming building products.
“Whatever is being imported is potentially at risk,” he told The Fifth Estate.
While some products such as aluminium composite panel cladding, asbestos-contaminated glazing units and Infinity cables have received extensive coverage, many non-conforming products have been discovered but are not being reported on.
One example is some engineered wood products that have been found to have glue bonds that fail, or have formaldehyde levels that are too high for Australian standards, he said.
“The Australian Industry Group in 2013 found that 92 percent of companies surveyed had reported non-conforming products in their market sector,” Dr O’Brien said.
In some cases, such as with non-conforming glazing, issues can take time to manifest. This was the case with the Infinity cables – the faulty insulation in the cables was a hidden issue that only became apparent when there was a failure, causing issues such as fires.
Dr O’Brien is the non-conforming building products representative on the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors national technical committee and represents the institute on the Construction Product Alliance.
He said legislation introduced in Queensland to toughen up the stance on NCPs and accountability was a start, as it would be “getting some reporting into the issues” underway.
The big problem for the industry is a lack of understanding regarding which areas NCPs are a risk in and what the risk thresholds are.
“Without data it is hard to formulate a response,” he said.
Along with addressing non-complying use of products – such as the use of combustible ACP on a high-rise residential tower – Dr O’Brien said there was a question of education and understanding the roles and responsibilities within the building supply chain.
That includes requirements under legislation, codes and standards.
“It sometimes seems the focus is on trying to apportion blame.”
That means the building surveyor can get called into question, but there are also contractors doing the wrong thing.
Dr O’Brien pointed out that, in broad terms, the Australian industry was not in a bad position in terms of compliance.
“You only hear about things when they go bad, but generally the industry isn’t doing a bad job.”
Globalisation and the rise of NCPs
One of the reasons regulators needed to get a grip on NCPs, he said, was because they were a relatively recent phenomenon.
Previously, he said, up until the mid-to-late ’90s, the majority of construction products were made and supplied from within Australia.
“With globalisation there is now a stream of containerised traffic. We need to change how we are doing things to reflect the global supply chain.”
It’s a matter of “information economics”, where the problems are often invisible – such as the polymer used in cabling, the strength of steel or the chemical composition of steel.
The only way to know for sure if a product conforms when it comes in off the docks is to test it, or to rely on credible third party certification.
With third party certification there are also complexities.
In Australia, asbestos-free means exactly that. No asbestos. In China a product can be certified as asbestos-free with up to five per cent asbestos content, in the USA, up to two per cent asbestos is considered asbestos-free.
Dr O’Brien said Australia needs to adjust its systems and governance to adapt to the proper frameworks.
“The gold standard would be random testing for higher-risk products,” he said.
This is undertaken for electrical equipment entering the country, for example, which is why there are so many product recalls.
The shift in the building code towards being a performance code also creates a “great unknown”, as a performance solution is not just innovation in design, it is also innovation in materials.
“We have to get the verification right.”
Australian Industry Group calls for action
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the Grenfell fire put a strong focus on non-conforming building products and had clear implications for Australia.
“The terrible outcome of this incident and the potential for it to be repeated elsewhere, including Australia, is attracting much deserved attention from policy makers here,” he said.
“We are further encouraged with the recent action of the Queensland government introducing a bill in parliament to place greater responsibilities on all participants in the supply chain for product conformance.
“The Australian policy response to the London fire needs to be a continuing focus on the broader issue of conformance as well as not-fit-for-purpose building products of which cladding is one element.”
He said the VBA’s post-Lacrosse audit finding that 51 per cent of 171 Melbourne buildings did not comply with NCC cladding requirements reinforced the organisation’s view that “surveillance and audit by regulators are the most critical elements to ensuring product conformance and compliance”.
“An effective resolution to the issue requires regulators, builders and designers working cooperatively together and supporting and designing any appropriate regulatory response.”
This cladding is essentially matchsticks
National Fire Industry Association chief executive Wayne Smith was scathing about the results of the VBA audit, saying “it’s not acceptable to place the lives of residents and emergency personnel in greater danger by surrounding these building with, what are essentially, matchsticks”.
Policing and certification needed
Australian Steel Institute chief executive Tony Dixon said that while regulations may have the best intentions, if they are not policed or practical mechanisms put in place to ensure compliant product, there will continue to be high risks of instances like Grenfell Tower occurring.
“While we recognise that it is extremely onerous to retro-check every component of a large building, there are practical ways of ensuring that building codes and regulations are honoured, such as independently assessed certification schemes for contractors or targeted assessment tools,” he said.
“With this approach, you are heading off issues long before they can become ‘life and limb’ risks.”
It’s not just about products
Mr Smith said that in the aftermath of a tragedy like Grenfell Tower, people often get focused on products, but other fire protection measures were part of the puzzle, for example, a good fire protection systems. In the UK sprinklers are still not mandatory in high rise apartments.
Mr Smith said in the case of Lacrosse, the fire sprinkler system played a major part in zero lives being lost despite the non-conforming cladding product fuelling the fire.
Fire safety is a “combination of good design, good products that have been assessed for performance, a good fire protection system, and the right people to do the design, installation and maintenance [of that system]”, he said.
This applies not only to residential but also to commercial buildings, he said. Given they have a “shelf life” of 30 to 35 years, owners and managers need to ensure fire protection system maintenance and servicing is of a “quality level”.
In Queensland and a number of other states, regular servicing of fire protection systems within high rises is mandatory under legislation.
“This adds another important layer of fire protection for the building’s occupants. To do it properly though, it’s important to have qualified people doing this work. For example, qualified sprinkler fitters know what’s required to properly maintain and service high-rise apartment building fire sprinkler systems.
We need smart tradespeople for smart buildings
Only in Queensland and Victoria, however, is it stipulated that only qualified people do this work.
“How can we talk about smart buildings of the future when we are not asking for smart, skilled-up tradespeople?”
Mr Smith said the NFIA was continuing to work around Australia with the different state and territory governments to ensure that every Australian living in a high-rise apartment building had the best fire protection possible.
Where fire protection systems are being reported as non-compliant or poorly performing, Mr Smith said it “goes back to who does the work”.
In terms of whether products add to risk, Mr Smith said it was “all about supply chain accountability”.
“We need a better process in place to ensure accountability and that the product itself passes muster.
“It is a challenge for us as part of a global community.”
He said there needed to be a way to reward good quality products, and “cut off at the pass those poor quality products”.
“Incidents such as Grenfell Tower and Docklands must be treated as a wake up call by government and the industry.”