Combustible cladding crisis calls for tighter industry standards

The issue of Australia’s combustible cladding crisis is gaining traction as debate over who picks up the bill for fixing the problem rages on. The Federal government has rejected the Victorian government’s request to cover half of the $600 million cost to fix the state’s cladding problem, while the Queensland government refuses to offer any funding assistance, deeming building owners responsible for rectifying the problem.   

A staggering number of Australian buildings have been found to contain aluminium composite panel (ACP) cladding, which was responsible for the speed, spread and difficulty of managing both the London Grenfell Tower and Melbourne Lacrosse apartment block fires. These types of panels were originally developed in the 1970s for use in signage and contain polyethylene (PE) or expanded polystyrene fillings.

The cladding crisis has serious implications for building or project owners, architects, surveyors, fire engineers and other construction industry certifiers as, states with high numbers of questionable buildings will be forced to asses building standards and regulatory compliance to ensure risks are mitigated.

What makes ACP cladding combustible?

Aluminium composite panel is predominantly made up of Polyethylene, which is derived from petroleum and is more flammable. However PE cladding can be combined with non-combustible materials to reduce its level combustibility, though this can only be established by testing the filling.

According to a report from the Australian Financial Review, when the CSIRO tested the flammability of samples from the cladding used on the Lacrosse building, the process had to be suspended to avoid damaging the machines involved.

Due to its lightness, versatility and slick appearance ACP cladding has been adopted extensively for exterior building treatments across the country, with New South Wales and Victoria identifying more than 1000 buildings in each state with dangerous ACP panels during an audit. The actual number, however, is estimated to be much greater.

What does this mean for the building industry?

While the judge ruling over the Lacrosse Tower case found no evidence that the builder of the tower failed to take reasonable care in installing the cladding, the fire engineer who approved the product was required to pay 39% of the $5.7 million damages, while 33% was dealt to the surveyor who approved the building, 25% to the architect and 3% to the smoker of the cigarette that sparked the blaze.

This decision signifies the burden of responsibility placed upon those tasked with assessing building safety and its suitability to be inhabited, and has led to the landmark agreement to raise building standards across Australia.

In July of this year, the nation’s ministers responsible for the building industry announced an agreement that would see the Australian Building Codes Board expanded, better resourced and force greater engagement from the building industry.

Victoria has gone one step further, with the state establishing a world-first program tackling high-risk cladding. The Cladding Safety Victoria (CSV) program, headed by Dan O’Brien, will manage the funding and works with owners corporations from start to finish to ensure buildings are safe and compliant with all regulations.

The states and territories also agreed to work towards a coordinated approach on professional indemnity insurance, which will be developed further in consultation with the industry in the coming months.