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Flammable cladding: ignoring the alarms

London’s Grenfell Tower disaster, which has so far claimed 79 lives, looks to have kicked Australian authorities into action on flammable cladding.

Other states have now joined Victoria in probing the true scale of the problem, and politicians are talking tough.

The Insurance Council of Australia has also upped the rhetoric, calling for a national audit of buildings and casting doubt over whether insurers will pay claims for buildings featuring non-compliant cladding.

But the question remains: why did it take so long when the warnings had been so very clear for years?

Since the fire at the Lacrosse apartments in Melbourne’s Docklands in November 2014, which was spread by non-compliant cladding, insuranceNEWS.com.au has published more than 30 articles on the issue.

Experts were lining up to stress how fortunate it was that nobody died at Lacrosse, and that other buildings posed a similar risk.

Had the weather been different, had the sprinkler system not performed to capacity, Lacrosse could so easily have been Grenfell.

“We potentially have a lot of very dangerous buildings and we have just been waiting for these fires to start occurring” FM Global Australian Operations Chief Engineer Andre Mierzwa told insuranceNEWS.com.au in May 2015.

Fire Protection Association Australia CEO Scott Williams said in February last year: “There is a crisis in relation to compliance and enforcement of the building code.”

Lacrosse was not an isolated example.

Cladding has been blamed for a number of serious high-rise fires over the past decade in the US, the Middle East and Asia. In 2012 one person died and six were injured in a fire at the Mermoz Tower in Roubaix, France, which had a composite panel facade.

After Lacrosse, Mr Williams told Insurance News (the magazine) it was in fact a “wonderful situation”, because the threat had been exposed without loss of life, and could be dealt with.

Sadly, things did not turn out that way – crucial lessons were not learned in the UK, or apparently across much of Australia.

The Victorian Building Authority (VBA) held an audit of 170 Melbourne buildings, with more than half found to feature non-compliant cladding. An audit was also carried out in Perth, finding nine buildings of potential concern.

But elsewhere in the country the silence was deafening, and only now has definitive action been pledged in SA and NSW.

“Why is it only now these other states are getting involved?” an industry expert, who wants to remain anonymous, asked insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“Why didn’t they do it when Lacrosse happened? Because it did not affect them directly? What is wrong with us? We’ve become complacent.”

He says if delays were down to fears that huge costs might follow – removing non-compliant cladding across the nation would cost many millions of dollars – then those fears were misguided.

“In the UK, the cost [of dealing with cladding] was clearly too much,” he says. “But now there are 80 or more people dead, demonstrations in the streets and a government almost overturned. That is the real cost.”

He says the issue here is not with the Building Code of Australia, but with the fact people routinely ignore it. And he calls for tougher penalties for those found guilty of breaches.

“Building surveyors found guilty are effectively told, ‘Don’t do it again,’ ” he says.

“It’s not enough.”

Concerns remain even in Victoria, with accusations that buildings of concern were not dealt with effectively or efficiently.

The VBA told insuranceNEWS.com.au that from the audit of 170 buildings, 24 building permits continue to be non-compliant.

“The VBA is working with the relevant building surveyor and builders to bring the building permits into compliance,” a spokesman says.

“These buildings have been deemed safe to occupy by the City of Melbourne’s Municipal Building Surveyor (MBS).”

Further audits are taking place, the spokesman confirms.

More than 40 buildings connected to the developer of Harvest Apartments in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne, (the only building apart from Lacrosse that required an emergency building order from the MBS) were investigated.

The VBA says 13 of these buildings are yet to demonstrate compliance.

The VBA is also auditing 64 buildings in co-operation with the City of Port Phillip, focused on buildings of less than 10 storeys that are not required to have sprinkler systems.

“Site inspections of these buildings has commenced and, if required, the VBA will use its coercive powers to require builders and building surveyors to produce evidence of external wall cladding compliance,” it says.

insuranceNEWS.com.au understands the NSW Government is putting together “a comprehensive building product safety scheme”. This package is likely to include powers to prevent the use of unsafe building products, including dangerous cladding.

NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts says the Government takes the issue “very seriously”.

He says following the Lacrosse blaze, councils were advised of concerns raised by the Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW.

“My agency will monitor the investigation into the London fire to determine whether there is any relationship with the combustible cladding matter and whether any further action should be taken on this matter in NSW and at the Commonwealth level,” he said.

“NSW has been active at the national level, working with other states and territories and the Australian Building Codes Board to develop proposals to strengthen regulation to minimise the risk of using building products that do not comply with required standards.”

In the UK, a public inquiry will examine what went wrong at Grenfell.

In the meantime, 600 high-rise buildings are being tested, and 60 have so far been found to be covered in combustible cladding.

An Australian-based international fire safety expert told Insurance News (the magazine) in 2015 that “Rome burned because of narrow streets and combustible facades. The Great Fire of London spread because of narrow streets and combustible facades.

“Will we never learn?”

Maybe after Grenfell we might have finally learned. But it was a heavy price to pay.

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