Policy makers knew about flammable cladding but did nothing

Cross-posted from The Conversation:

The fire at the Neo200 building on Spencer Street in the Melbourne CBD this week has eerie similarities to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Fortunately, instead of 72 people dead as at Grenfell, only one person was hospitalised for smoke inhalation.

Nevertheless, the building industry has responded straight from the Grenfell song sheet. Rydon, the main contractor for the Grenfell Tower cladding, said the work:

… met all required building regulations – as well as fire regulation and Health & Safety standards – and handover took place when the completion notice was issued by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea building control.

Rydon chief executive Robert Bond said:

I will do all I can to assist in this investigation in order to establish what caused this tragedy.

The Neo 200 architect, Hayball, stated:

Neo 200 achieved certification and approval from the building certifier and relevant authorities at the time. We welcome the opportunity to support any investigation into the incident by authorities.

This appears to be the property sector’s version of “thoughts and prayers”. We’re very sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.

Sadly, this is far from the truth. We have known of the risk for years and the problem can be rectified.

Governments must act to ensure the cladding identified as a fire risk on hundreds of buildings is replaced. Further delay in fixing an identified threat to life is unacceptable.

Before the Grenfell and Neo200 fires, Melbourne had a cladding fire at the Lacrosse building in 2014. This led to an audit of external wall cladding on buildings by the Victorian Building Authority.

Following the Grenfell fire, states conducted further audits. In October 2018, an update by the Victorian Cladding Taskforce stated:

Our investigations found dangerous materials are widely used on buildings throughout Victoria, a finding that is consistent with inquiries carried out interstate and internationally.

We now know that hundreds of residential buildings are rated as either a moderate or high risk by the New South Wales and Victorian governments. Over 350 buildings in Melbourne alone are rated “high risk”. Neo200 was regarded as only a “moderate risk”.

Residential buildings are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a cladding fire because people can be asleep and windows are often left open. The amount of smoke generated by the recent Neo200 fire is frightening.

In the UK, the central government has given local authorities the power to replace risky cladding. We should do the same here.

Governments should take rectification out of the hands of dithering strata committees and, if necessary, carry out the necessary work directly and recover the costs from the responsible parties.

How did we get to this point?

Polyethylene-cored aluminium sandwich panels – often referred to as aluminium composite panels (ACP), PE or PU panels – were developed 50 years ago, patented in 1971 and marketed as Alucobond. When the patent expired in 1991 other manufacturers entered the market, including products marketed as Reynobond (originally Reynolds Aluminium) and Alpolic (Mitsubishi Chemicals). Now, it is estimated over 200 manufacturers around the world produce ACP panels.

By the 1990s, ACP was gaining a level of acceptance in the Australasian construction market. This was aided by the introduction of performance requirements to replace a previous blanket ban on combustible materials being used on tall building facades. The timing of the relaxation of the Building Code of Australia and the introduction of ACP panels to the Australian market by multinational companies could be a coincidence.

By the end of the 1990s, there was growing evidence that the performance-based approach to facade fire protection was not working. Combustible cored sandwich panels were implicated as contributors to serious injuries and death. A notable example was a 1993 fire in the Sun Valley food-processing factory in Hereford in which two firefighters died. In 1997, the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa) experienced a cladding fire during construction.

The general and technical press, including architectural magazines with wide circulation, reported cladding fires in various types of materials, including ACP.

What can be done to reduce the risk?

Clearly, a facade fire has serious consequences. The bedrock of all modern fire regulations is that a fire in a tall building must be confined to a single storey. A fire spreading from one floor to the next completely undermines all the elements of protection and control that make egress routes and firefighting viable.

As we saw at Grenfell, a fire that spreads up the facade and involves nearly every storey in the building can’t be brought under control.

By 2000, there was widespread concern among fire professionals and some regulators that ACP was a bomb waiting to go off. A paper by Dr Gordon Cooke clearly outlined the risks. It makes chilling reading in the light of the Grenfell disaster.

Luckily, most tall residential buildings in Australia with combustible ACP cladding have internal sprinkler systems – unlike Grenfell. We might also be able to buy some time by banning barbecues and smoking on balconies, but it is doubtful this will be 100% effective. Another possibility is to physically secure balcony doors shut, but many owners and tenants might strongly resist this draconian measure.

These measures still will not eliminate the risk of arson highlighted by the Victorian government.

As the Neo200 fire demonstrates, even a moderate risk is still quite risky. It is extraordinary that a fire allegedly lit by a single smouldering cigarette could spread so quickly across seven floors and generate so much potentially deadly smoke.

An urgent cladding replacement program certainly has its challenges. A campaign that involves working on several hundred buildings at once in Melbourne and Sydney might overload the industry.

Nevertheless, the situation has been created by a lack of action by governments. Only decisive government action can rectify it. No more “thoughts and prayers”, enquiries or investigations; just replace the cladding now.

Article by , Adjunct Lecturer in Architecture, UNSW

Comments

    • Very good lol. At least the hospitals that have it first, then hunt down the developers and seize assets to pay for it. The developers would have known. I’ve been told in VIC if you have a housing issue, that the regulators just ignores you as does the local council. Two people in my street have run into a brick wall with rogue builders/developers. So, I’m guessing high rise is even worse.

      • boomengineeringMEMBER

        afund, did 4 laps of N Head hill this morn with the free issue safety glasses, all good until sun in eyes. damm. Looks like Oakley Field Jacket photo chromatic coming up. Hope all this your advice training pays off as hes still beating me.

      • I got some Oakley RadarLocks a while back because every other pair of sunnies I’d tried fogged/sweated up. They’ve got venting across the top and that seems to work well.

        Have some photochromic lenses for them but I find they don’t get dark enough (I used to wear Transitions spectacles before I got lasik’ed and they had the same problem). I just stick with the regular polarised ones. I struggle mightily to drag myself out of bed in the morning so I’m rarely out early enough for it to be too dark. Only use the photochromics when I’m commuting in winter these days.

  1. Anyone found to know about this and not acting should be served a long prison sentence including our politicians. This should also hold for other things like climate change when evidence is overwhelming, no action should result in long prison sentences.

  2. “The timing of the relaxation of the Building Code of Australia and the introduction of ACP panels to the Australian market by multinational companies could be a coincidence.”

    I’m gunna call bullsh!t on that one.

  3. “… met all required building regulations.” Ding ding ding!

    And therein lies the problem. The regulations are only as good as the human beings creating them — if they were handed down by a Supreme Being things may be different, but alas.

    Added to which, regulations represent ‘the bare minimum’ i.e. no one is incentivised to go above and beyond. And, finally, the chumps buying these death-boxes are lead to believe, via the very existence of regu-lay-shuns, that they are purchasing something perfectly safe and sound. No due diligence necessary! LMFAO, the human race is doomed.

    • Mining BoganMEMBER

      A workmate’s daughter bought one of these death traps a couple of years ago. He wasn’t even aware of the burning stuff until last week when it made morning tv.

      The attempted shut down of information may have been more successful than we thought.

      • The issue with this farce is that the taxpayer may end up with the bill as any negligent public sector officials (via regulation) represent the State. The way to avoid such a situation is to put the onus squarely on the builder to prove they’re doing the right thing. This is very easy to do:

        1. Developers will not sell properties unless banks lend to punters.
        2. Banks will not lend to punters unless they are certain the collateral is sound.
        3. Banks would not lend to developers to build unless they were satisfied the developer could sell the units they were building.

        All the above are tied in with each other.

        Basically, developers would need to prove to lenders via a comprehensive ‘dossier’ that their building was of the soundest quality i.e. a specs and engineering schedule that could be reviewed by a specialist department in the bank. It sounds clunky but lenders have the resource for this kind of thing and banks, frankly, do f*all as it is so they should be made to work harder in the whole process. The banks would also have to be ‘released’ from State support for this to work, obviously.

        As things currently stand, ‘regulation’ does all the heavy lifting for both banks and developers by implicitly making the State liable if regulation fails. This is a bad deal for us tax stiffs.

  4. I’m kind of of the opinion that the cladding should stay and we should look at ways to incorporate sufficient flame retardants at all panel joins and augment this with additional fire safety strategies that will reduce the risk to acceptable levels.
    As much as it would be nice to know that all the non-compliant panels are gone this replacement project is shaping up to be a bigger fiasco than pink batts. If we push for every building (all 10000) to be done as soon as possible than we’ll be creating a boom industry with very little oversight and a very small skill labour base that is tasked with the impossible. The end result will be shoddy and probably very dangerous work practices along with guaranteed deaths from poorly attached panels, poorly trained workers.
    It sucks but lets not forget the goal is to save lives and achieve increased fire safety, there are many paths that can be followed in achieving these goals.

    • Perhaps by including letting the owners/occupants know, and, having the builder/developer pay their accommodation expenses until remediated?

      Or would that be too much private accountability in this country

  5. I was listening to the radio the other day and the Head of the Taskforce (Ted Baillieu) was trying to defend how long it is taking. I don’t want excuses, I want to know why it is taking so long since the Lacrosse fire which was five years ago.

  6. ErmingtonPlumbingMEMBER

    “Nevertheless, the situation has been created by a lack of action by governments. Only decisive government action can rectify it.”

    But, But, But Government is bad.
    Its still to big,…isn’t it?
    To bureaucratic,…so we are told.
    More Red tap needs to be cut!
    Productivity and efficiency gains can only occur in a pure free Market!
    Free of Government interference!
    What do you mean “ONLY GOVERNMENT CAN FIX IT” !?
    I though Free Markets,…are THE Universal cure all.

    Your talking Commie talk Geoff!

  7. They should make it a legal requirement to list if flammable cladding has been identified when selling your property, and free market dynamics should kick into gear.

    • I know of one case where flammable cladding was identified and the building insurance jumped from $65k to $220k. Anyone buying in to that building would presumably get access to the strata reports and find out what is going on before they exchange contracts. But, I guess it is pretty unreasonable if you have to make a serious offer and pay money for a strata report before you can find out such basic information.

  8. ChristopherJMEMBER

    Cairns’ new theatre opened in December – CPAC – performing arts centre. Clad in ACP. All concerts need a fire tender in the car park, that’s how they manage the fire risk until someone works out who’s going to pay for the millions of dollars required to rectify. (Lot more than the original fix too. New scaffold to keep workers safe. All has to be removed, plus all the fixings, glues and wot not. Then the new panels, more expensive than ACP no doubt. – wot a cock up)

    When I found out, I could not believe it. Snot as though the dangers of ACP have not be known for long time and were highlighted in London, with plenty of time for the council and the builder to change course.

    Plenty of apartments in this town too, on crap swampy ground a few feet from the water table when it rains.

    How they sell at all to investors, I have no idea.

    • That reminds me of the 1980’s when the Great Hall at Sydney University was still lit by gas jets. Because of the fire regulations, it was illegal to sell tickets to any concert there. So, instead, you would technically be sold a 1-day membership to a club called the “Great Hall Concert Society”, and the concert was free for members of that society.

  9. Grenfell Tower UK had 129 1 & 2 bed units with an official occupancy of 240 people, but was housing over 600 people. An average occupancy density of 4.7 per dwelling.
    (Source for the pedants / Wikipedia – The 67.30m tall building contained 120 one-and two-bedroom flats.[33][34] The upper 20 of 24 storeys had six dwellings and 10 bedrooms each. The lower four storeys were used for non-residential purposes. Later, two floors were converted to residential use, bringing the total to 129 apartments, housing up to 600 people.[35][36])

    So 4.65 people per unit and it had over 340 more people than allowed.
    The vast majority were migrants subletting – not on any lease or official record – cash in hand migrant subletting. 377 people were officially in the building (the others not known) with 72 killed, again a number dead not on any lease or known / unidentifiable.

    Ok.
    Now let’s do the compare.

    World Tower Liverpool St Sydney Meriton
    84 stories.
    Any fire over level 25 (ground is level 10) is virtually un reachable by the best Sydney Fire Brigade appliance as part of the building’s unusual world square design.
    World Tower has had chronic issues in the fire control systems & water holding tanks.
    World tower had 9,500 pass cards & 1,900 residents in the 236 residential rented (mostly foreign owned) 1 & 2 bed units.
    An average of 8.05 people per unit.
    The vast majority non Australians temporary residents on migrant guestworker visas.
    Living in cots & bunks in extremely high density, illegal internal partitions, and extensive use of small gas camping stoves & rice cookers inside these little partitions.

    World square is the home of the bunk, rice wifi & toilet roll deal seen everywhree on gumtree, those tear off notes on power poles & now on the ethnic websites.
    6 bunks in the master & 4 bunks in the second bedroom. 2 in the lounge, maybe 1 inside the sliding wardrobe.
    8 or 9 migrant guestworkers as a building average per unit. 2 bed plus sunroom often had 14 migrant guestworkers almost all on a pretext visa.

    At 9 per unit, twice the occupancy density of Grenfell Tower. Not on any lease. No checked identity. Passcard / let in by the migrant ‘unit manager’.
    The foreign owner – proxy lets via an agent to a transient & declares minimal legal rent only. Then the PR proxy collects another $1,000-$1,500 week in cash in hand subletting, pays back the foreign criminal syndicates & collects negative gearing as a kicker.

    Sydney Morning Herald Meriton class action. Verbatim.
    “Through official documents, the secretary of the owners’ corporation, King Chen, says Mr Triguboff’s company has turned a blind eye, not only to maintenance problems but to dangerous overcrowding, with many apartments filled with sub-divided bedrooms and overseas students.
    The Strata minutes accuse the company of helping to fuel the problem by issuing 9500 swipe cards to the building without authority. (There are 236 residential units in the tower.)They say Meriton employees misappropriated some of the $100 to $150 deposits paid on each card.

    If World Tower went up like a candle, we are talking a thousand or more dead – many not on the lease or on a false identity.

    ➡️ Why we need a migrant identity and accomodation registration system. Not just the subletting Fraud but also for building use design & safety.

    Regis Tower in Pitt Street.
    Previously Meriton.
    282 apartments. Over 1,700 occupants. Packed full of Thai & Chinese brothels & sex workers. Lots of media on this and the drug trade going on in there.
    Advertised widely on ethnic websites in Thailand in bunk share $170-$220 a week for the bunk share rice wifi & toilet roll deal.
    Fire when a Thai attacked a Thai worker with flammable liquid after a doublecross on a PR scam.
    The Regis is also like a railway station. thousands of migrant guestworkers on pretext visas in the Regis complex.
    The Sydney City Council and the NSW Fire Brigade are fully aware & do nothing.
    The Summit – same.
    The Luminere – Korea vice central – overlooks Sydney City Council / Town Hall same.
    All the tower blocks CBD Haymarket out to the weather.
    The Quay & all the Quay St tower blocks.
    Central Park
    Green Square
    And all the other tower blocks, Zetland, Mascot Square, Rhodes, Burwood, Strathfield, Parramatta etc.
    Ah,,. And so on. It’s easier to list the ones that aren’t crammed full of migrant guestworkers living illegally.

    Common, everywhere. Crammed with double or triple occupancy temporary resident migrant guestworkers on foreign Student or other visa pretexts.

    Melbourne, the recent cladding Fire.
    Full of foreign students migrant guestworkers living illegally. Smoke alarms blocked. Internal illegal partitions, cash in hand subletting.

    The are some Australian records worth a mention.
    These exceed the Hong Kong Cage Housing and the Dhacca or Calcutta occupancy density records.

    🥈2 bed: 43 Nepalese in 2 bed fibro in Parramatta.
    And the winner:
    🥇3 bed: 58 in a 3 bed house in Pyrmont.
    “Daily Telegraph June 16, 2015 Nick Hansen and James Gorman
    A THREE-BEDROOM house with 58 beds in it and a person sleeping in a pantry were among the findings of an investigation into Sydney’s illegal accommodation rackets. Landlords had crammed tenants into fire-escapes, stairwells and bathrooms. In one case, 19 illegal rooms were built in a three-bedroom home to fit 58 illegal tenants”.
    -/-

    ▪️Who is paying off who?
    This stuff is opposite SCC Town Hall and actually all the mayor can see when looking out the window is into walls of migrant only tower block cage housing.

    ▪️Why don’t we have a non resident identity and accomodation registration system?

    How long before 500, 1,000 dead?

    How long before the charred corpses of hundreds of non identifiable/fake identity migrant guestworkers, are brought out after a major fire.
    And found to be using gas camping stoves, rice cookers, trapped inside partitions in bunks & cage housing in a tower block that went up like a candle.

    Who will then say “oh we didn’t know”. “Had no idea”.

    The SCC & all the councils, the NSW Fire Brigade and the Building Managers all KNOW EXACTLY this is going on and is a disaster waiting to happen.

  10. After London, there was no excuse. Zero excuses for how long it took. Just like nothing really took place with the RC into the banks. Did anyone go to prison? Nothing ever really takes place… back to business. Move along now folks… nothing to see here…

  11. I hazard a guess that it will only be when a few dozen burning bodies do swan dives off a towering inferno and it is shown live on the news that anything significant will be done about this problem.

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