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Insurers back national cladding probe after UK disaster

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Australian insurers are backing a national survey of buildings using flammable cladding in the wake of the devastating blaze that killed at least 58 people in London’s Grenfell Tower.

Experts have warned the disaster could be replicated in Australia, and the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) says a national survey is needed “before tragedy occurs”.

Witnesses say last week’s fire in the inner-London suburb of Kensington raced up the tower block’s exterior, fuelled by combustible cladding that was added to the 1970s structure last year.

The cladding is thought to be similar to that blamed for the rapid spread of a major blaze at the Lacrosse apartments in Melbourne’s Docklands in 2014.

Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne moved last week to reassure residents that Australia’s strong building codes mean a similar tragedy would not occur here.

But experts disagree, saying the prevalence of flammable cladding here remains a serious threat to life.

Following the Lacrosse fire, the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) audited 170 Melbourne CBD buildings and found 51% featured non-compliant cladding.

Many of these buildings were deemed safe to occupy, and even the Lacrosse building retains its original cladding as legal arguments continue over who should pay to remove it.

The number of buildings with such cladding in other cities – including Sydney – is unknown, although an audit of Adelaide buildings has been announced since the Grenfell disaster.

One of the arguments in Australia’s favour is that buildings more than 25 metres tall must have sprinkler systems installed.

The 24-storey, 70-metre Grenfell Tower, which was insured by Norwegian insurer Protector Forsikring, had no sprinklers and only one stairway exit for 120 homes.

But FM Global Australian Operations Chief Engineer Andre Mierzwa told that while sprinkler systems are a huge benefit, “they can be overtaxed”.

“I took a walk down the [Melbourne] Docklands and at least 50% of buildings have this [combustible cladding] on them,” he said.

“We still need to have a close look at these buildings, and we are not out of the woods yet for a similar sort of fire.”

FM Global, which deals only in the commercial space, carries out its own testing of materials and risk assessments.

But Mr Mierzwa believes most insurers of residential apartments would not know which type of cladding has been used on buildings.

“They would have to do a lot of digging to find out what the product is,” he said.

He also believes a claim could be denied if a building is discovered following a fire to be non-compliant with the Building Code of Australia (BCA) and it can be argued the owner “deliberately withheld information”.

He believes the pressure will now be on to remove cladding in Melbourne and across the country.

“But it will cost millions and millions of dollars,” he said.

Fire Protection Association Australia CEO Scott Williams told the London tragedy could easily be repeated here.

“The BCA is a minimum code, and when a building doesn’t reach that we have a problem,” he said.

“Any building that has this combustible cladding poses a very strong risk that what happened in London could happen here.”

He says there is a clear discipline issue within the building industry. “There is unscrupulous behaviour and substitution of product to save a few dollars.

“There needs to be greater auditing, and greater enforcement with consequences for individuals who breach the rules.”

He believes cladding could be just the tip of the iceberg.

“What about the thousands of other products going into buildings? Are we talking about widespread non-compliance, and [is] our building stock actually in a terrible condition? We just don’t know.

“We have a lot of work to do. The cladding has to come off, whatever the cost, and every building has to be compliant with the code.”

ICA spokesman Campbell Fuller says Australian insurers are “acutely aware” of the dangers of inappropriate materials and the need for strict compliance with the BCA.

“Many insurers inspect high-rise buildings prior to agreeing to underwrite them, and also rely on compliance testing carried out by certified professionals experienced in the management of fire safety codes,” he said.

“If insurers become aware of new information that alters the risk profile of a building, they may choose to reassess their premiums accordingly. Evidence that an insured building is non-compliant with building codes has the potential to complicate the claims process.

“If policyholders become aware of information that materially alters the level of risk they face, they are obliged to notify their insurer.

“Insurers would support a national approach to surveying buildings that use these products to ensure any issues can be identified and rectified by owners before tragedy occurs.”