The flammable cladding crisis – a contentious topic that has sent shockwaves through the entire nation’s construction industry, sparking major concerns over this material used on thousands of Australian buildings. In this article we will explain everything you need to know.
Cladding is an extra layer that wraps around the outside of the building. Construction companies use cladding to stop rain and wind from entering the building. Cladding can also provide some sound and thermal insulation as well as making the exterior look more stylish.
There are various types of cladding in the market with some more fire-resistant than others. If the cladding is created with the right materials, then it is considered to have excellent fire resistance.
Poor fire-resistant cladding is a fire hazard. Expanded polystyrene and aluminium composite panels with a polymer core increase the risk of fire spread, particularly on multi-storey buildings. Generally, these products are not permitted to be used on the exterior of a building.
Most aluminium composite cladding consists of a layer of plastic sandwiched between two aluminium sheets. It’s the plastic layer, usually made of polyethene (also called polyethylene), that’s the main culprit. The stuff used in cladding is high-density polyethene, or HDPE. As seen in this photo below:
The combustibility ratio – is the measure that gives an idea of how flammable a fuel is. The ratio is calculated by dividing the amount of heat released from burning material by the amount of heat needed to ignite it. The higher the number, the more flammable the material. Red oak, for instance, is pretty low: it has a combustibility ratio of 3. The combustibility ratio of HDPE is 25.
Buildings that were constructed after March1997 that fall into the following classes under the National code are in scope for this review:
If your building was built after this date and is three or more storeys high, it is likely your building will be assessed by The Victorian Building Authority who is leading a state-wide audit of:
- apartment complexes, motels and hotels (three storeys and above);
- buildings where Victorians gather as a large group, such as sporting areas; and
- private schools, private hospitals and aged care facilities (two storeys and above).
Due to the number of assessments required, the VBA is unable to give an indication of when this will be. Owners’ corporation and building managers will be advised before an inspection takes place, and residents will be informed on the day of the inspection. They will know if the building has been audited, and what the results were.
If your building has not been audited, you can ask them to request building documents, such as permits and drawings, from your local council or the relevant building surveyor. This may provide additional information about the building materials used in your apartment complex. If your building is found to have at-risk cladding, it does not necessarily mean your building is unsafe.
During the inspection, a building inspector visits your building and meets your building owner or owners’ corporation. Your council’s Municipal Building Surveyor or a representative may also attend. The inspector assesses cladding from the street and inside common areas and records the results.
After the inspection a panel of experts form an advisory reference panel and review information collected during the inspection. The panel of experts typically includes: a fire safety engineer, a fire safety emergency expert from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) or Country Fire Authority (CFA); and a building surveyor.
The experts will analyse the results and, if required, recommend steps to reduce the fire safety risk of your building. These steps will be communicated to your owners’ corporation and your council’s Municipal Building Surveyor. The VBA will request that your owners’ corporation or building owner keeps you informed of inspection results.
This may include recommending the Municipal Building Surveyor issues notices or orders to improve the fire safety of the building. Residents will be advised of the outcome in the weeks after the advisory reference panel is held.
If urgent actions are required following an advisory reference panel, building managers and residents will be informed immediately.
Recent events. The fire at the Lacrosse tower in 2014 in Docklands was exacerbated by its flammable cladding there is currently an ongoing tribunal battle over the $24 million removal and repair costs. Then the 2017 Grenfell tower fire in London that caused 72 deaths fuelled by the same flammable cladding has led to the widespread international concerns about flammable cladding. The most recent event in Melbourne was in the Neo building in Spencer street that was caught in flames Feb 2019.
In 2017 the Victorian Government established a Victorian Cladding Taskforce to investigate and address the use of non-compliant building materials in Victoria. The State-wide Cladding Audit was established following the recommendations of this taskforce.
Since its origin, the taskforce has conducted over 2,200 inspections. The Taskforce found 500 buildings in higher-risk categories that needed rectification. The Neo tower is one of 15 high-risk buildings to receive government funding, so repair work can be done quickly. The Andrews government has committed $600 million to fix the state’s flammable cladding crisis with the dangerous material used on hundreds of buildings.
In the city of Melbourne there are 81 privately-owned buildings identified with high risk flammable cladding, shown by metropolitan municipality, as at 11 July 2019.
Tips if you are buying an apartment, make sure you do your due diligence. You should:
- Find out who the builder was and what date the apartment was built. If its after 1997 that you mustinvestigate the matter further.
- Find out if expanded polystyrene (EPS) or aluminium composite panels (ACP) are known issues at the address. Start by asking the vendor, agent, owners corporation or building manager
- Review the owners corporate minutes to see if there has been any discussion around inspections by the VBA or any independent 3rd party.
- Contact your local council and the VBA contact your local council’s building department or Municipal Building Surveyor and ask if they are aware of any cladding or fire safety issues at the address. You can also ask the VBA if the building has been audited.
- Check the the Section 32 statement to see if there has been any disclosure about flammable cladding.
A Section 32 statement is a legal document which must be factually accurate and complete. A buyer might be able to withdraw from the contract of sale before settlement, if the Section 32 statement contains incorrect or insufficient information. It is an offence for a vendor to knowingly or recklessly provide false or incomplete information, or fail to provide a Section 32 statements.
Information that must be disclosed in a section 32 statement includes: owners corporation certificate. Any notices, orders, declarations, reports or recommendations issued by a public authority or government department that apply to the property at the time the section 32 notice is prepared. This would include any building notices or orders, reports or recommendations issued by the Victorian Building Authority, local council or municipal building surveyor, that relate to the presence of combustible cladding affecting the property
Public safety is the number one reason why the cladding needs to be fixed. However, it is likely that building owners will face increased insurance premiums while combustible cladding remains on the building. The presence of combustible cladding WILL impact on the value of a building, the owner corporation fees, the ability to sell your apartment and the growth – so its vital you do your due diligence before you buy.