The Use of Combustible Cladding in Australian Buildings

In the early hours of 14 June 2017, an intense fire tore through the Grenfell Towers in London. A statement issued in November by the London Metropolitan Police confirmed that 71 people were killed together with hundreds left homeless as a result of the blaze.

Described as nothing less than a tragedy, the Grenfell fire has provided many communities with a stark reminder of the potential deadly use of combustible polyethylene core cladding in high-rise buildings. Although not nearly as devastating as the Grenfell fire, this is not the first time such an event has occurred.

In 1998, a blaze which started on the third floor of the Country Comfort Motel in Albury NSW quickly spread to the top level of the building due to the use of combustible fibreglass cladding on the building’s exterior.

More recently in 2014, a fire occurred at the Lacrosse apartments building in Melbourne. The fire started on the eighth floor and extended upward to all floors in the building to the roof. Following the fire, an investigation found that the use of aluminium cladding was a contributing factor to the rapid spread of the fire and that the building did not satisfy Australian Building Standards.

Polyethylene Aluminium Composite Material

Aluminium composite material (ACM) is a term used to describe a flat panel that consists of a mineral core (often polyethylene) bonded between two aluminium metal sheets that are commonly used as the cladding in many medium to high-rise buildings.

ACM has been in use in Australia since the 1970’s, popular for its versatility, lightweight and low at cost price. With the recent tragic events, ACM’s use has come into significant question and raised many concerns.

In response to these disasters, the Parliament of Australia published a Senate Committee report on 6 September 2017.

Senate Committee Findings

In the wake of recent cases, the Australian Senate Committee (the Committee) has called for a national ban on the use of flammable cladding. The Australian Society of Building Consultants (NSW) has estimated that there are 2700 buildings in Sydney alone utilising ACM, and 50% of the high-rise buildings in Melbourne are constructed with ACM.

In light of expert evidence, the Committee held that they do not consider there to be any legitimate use of ACM on any building type in Australia. Stemming from this view, the Committee tabled several recommendations as a catalyst for holistic industry reform, including:

  1. implement a total ban on the importation, sale and use of ACM’s as a matter of urgency;
  2. establish a national licensing scheme, with requirements for continued professional development for all building practitioners;
  3. the Commonwealth Government consider making all Australian Standards and codes freely available;
  4. consider imposing a penalties regime for non-compliance with the National Construction Code such as revocation of accreditation; and
  5. develop a nationally consistent statutory duty of care protection for end users in the residential strata sector.

Implications for Building Developers

The fallout of these recommendations means that stricter, more onerous laws regulating the Australian building industry and the use of ACM are not far from being enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament. These proposed legislative changes will seek to increase building developer’s responsibility to meet building standards or risk facing potentially severe consequences.

The Committee did not cover the question of the replacement of ACM cladding on existing buildings, and this issue remains unanswered, along with who will be responsible for the cost of this replacement.

Builders can no longer claim they are not aware of the possible consequences of using ACM cladding, resulting in tougher liabilities for building developers.

However, what we must not forget on the road to reform is the safety of individuals residing in buildings containing ACM. For this reason, and in the shadow of the events outlined above, stronger consideration regarding the duty of care owed to residents and victims is required.

Implications for Consumers

In the absence of clear national standards regarding the use of ACM in Australia, purchasers should be cautious when buying a property. Steps to ensure products supplied are fit and safe for purpose and the Buyer’s expectations include:

  1. have an open discussion with the seller, builder and developer about the safety of the building;
  2. make sure the builder and developer have processes in place to confirm that the supplied goods meet the required certifications;
  3. look for companies that promote proactive safety management; and
  4. have your building contract reviewed by a solicitor to ensure the correct enquiries are made for the intended purchase.

Griffin Legal can assist in reviewing building contracts. Contact us on 02 6198 3100.

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