UPDATED 16 June 2017: A similar disaster to the devastating fire at London’s Grenfell Tower could strike Australia, experts have warned, calling for the ban of aluminium composite material cladding.
“We’ve been pushing the government for four years, and now we’re getting really angry. It just can’t go on,” one expert said.
The Building Products Innovation Council on Friday called for other states and territories to urgently follow the lead from Queensland, which was upgrading its standards on building materials.
Just hours after it had begun, commentators were drawing similarities between Grenfell and other high-rise fires around the world, including at Lacrosse Fire in Docklands covered extensively by The Fifth Estate last year.
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Dr Angus Law from the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh said it appeared cladding had “significantly contributed” to the spread of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Details then emerged showing that the building, which recently underwent a two-year £10 million (AU$16.7m) refurbishment, had been clad in an aluminium composite material by Harley Facades Limited, the same material linked to multiple high-rise fires around the world, from Docklands to Dubai.
Developer Rydon Construction said in a statement that the cladding had “met all required building control fire regulation and health and safety standards”.
Association of Specialist Fire Protection spokesman Arnold Tarling, however, told The Sun that while the cladding complied with regulations and even gave buildings a high environmental rating, it was a “silent killer”.
“This was an accident waiting to happen.”
Australia risks similar event
In Australia, aluminium composite materials continue to be used in new buildings, despite warnings of their potential to accelerate fires.
Engineer Robert Hart two years ago said it was “inevitable” that Sydney would fall victim to an multi-residential apartment fire with loss of life the likes of what we have seen in London, with the government’s paltry regulatory regime allowing developer profits to come before safety.
His statement was made in the context of an Engineers Australia report into defects in building in the NSW construction sector, which reported that 85 per cent of strata units in NSW were defective at completion.
Mr Hart told The Fifth Estate today his warning still stands.
Ban aluminium composite cladding
“It’s a two-part problem,” he said.
“The first part is that this material that ignites, that has proven to be unsafe, should not be imported into the country. Step one: don’t import the product.”
The second part is the lack of effective government regulation and oversight of the construction industry, which we’ve seen play out in poor-performing buildings, asbestos-laden children’s hospitals and faulty electrical cabling.
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Mr Hart said Australia should ban aluminium composite cladding – problems with which he said had been seen in materials produced not only in China, but Western Europe too. He said the government would have “blood on its hands” if it failed to act on improving fire safety of buildings, which also included major problems involving fire separation between apartments, the lack of properly installed fire gaps and incorrect installation of fire dampers.
In Victoria, in the wake of the Lacrosse fire, the Victorian Building Authority conducted an audit that found at least 51 per cent of 170 buildings audited contained non-compliant cladding. However, despite this non-compliance, said the buildings were safe to occupy.
Mr Hart said he had trouble believing this.
“They can not possibly say [the buildings] do not pose a future risk.”
He said the whole Australian construction industry was in a “perilous state” with a lack of oversight and enforcement, and governments had been delaying action.
“We’ve been pushing the government for four years, and now we’re getting really angry. It just can’t go on.”
A continually delayed Senate inquiry into non-conforming building products, which was instigated in 2015, in now due to report on 31 October 2017.