Non-compliant building materials back in spotlight as occupancy permits refused for Iglu student units
Willow Aliento | 4 February 2016
The Queensland state government has refused to issue occupancy permits for Iglu’s new student unit building in Mary Street, Brisbane, after concerns were raised about non-conforming cladding and its similarity to the aluminium composite panelling implicated in fires in Dubai on New Year’s Eve and at the Lacrosse fire at Docklands in Melbourne last year.
Iglu, majority owned by Macquarie Capital and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, has denied there is a problem but the issue has sparked new concerns about inferior building products brought into Australia and used in high-rise buildings, an issue currently under investigation by the Victorian Building Authority.
A statement issued by on the Iglu website on 30 January said media reports on fire safety issues were “alarmist and absolutely misleading”.
“We are satisfied and absolutely confident that Iglu Mary Street is of high quality and safety standard,” the company said. “Notwithstanding our confidence in our building, Iglu has never had any intention of occupying the building without the required and appropriate full certification.”
However, Queensland’s Department of Housing and Public Works said it would not issue occupancy permits for students to occupy Iglu and the building would also be the subject of a Building and Development Dispute Resolution Committee hearing on its use of non-conforming building products.
According to recent reports in The Brisbane Times, Brisbane City Council was investigating the concerns.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union Queensland has jumped into the fray with Queensland state secretary Michael Ravbar saying the union would lobby the federal government to stop inferior materials entering the country.
“They go on about border control but they have all these unsafe products entering the country,” he said.
Regardless of the official results of the investigations, the risk of reputational damage to Iglu, which has thousands of student units in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and to the builder of the Brisbane units, Probuild, will already be keenly felt.
Macquarie Capital Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC purchased a majority stake in Iglu from Plenary Group in 2014, with the Brisbane project having been expected to generate strong returns once it opened in 2016 based on demand for student accommodation.
The problem is, it hasn’t opened. So not only is there no rent being paid by students that had registered their interest in living there, Iglu is reportedly having to arrange alternative accommodation for those that had signed agreements.
The Fifth Estate has asked both companies for comment not just on the issue of the building materials but on the potential for reputational damage from the reports. A spokeswoman for Probuild said the company had no comment to make at this stage and at time of publication Macquarie had not issued a response.
However, the reverberations will be much wider and deeper than these two stakeholders, especially among the leading ranks of the many companies currently being revealed in Victoria as using inferior, mostly imported, building materials.
Melbourne’s prolific non-compliance scandal deepens
In response to the Lacrosse fire at Docklands, the Victorian Building Authority has since September last year been auditing of all high-rise buildings completed over the past 10 years where cladding similar cladding to that used at the Lacrosse fire may have been used.
The results are being progressively published at the authority’s website.
To date, more than 90 buildings from a total of 170 high rises deemed to require auditing have been assessed by the VBA.
Non-compliant cladding use has been found in 16 of those buildings.
The non-compliant buildings were then referred to the relevant council’s metropolitan building surveyor. In 14 cases, the MBS deemed the buildings safe to occupy despite being non-compliant.
Two others however, were deemed to require rectification works. One of these buildings is the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Care Centre, currently being delivered by Plenary Group.
The VBA said the Department of Health and Human Services would need to determine what rectification works must be carried out.
The second building, Harvest Apartments in Southbank, was found to have been completed in a manner inconsistent with the original documentation submitted for planning approval.
An added concern was that the building, at just under 25 metres in height, did not need to have fire sprinkler systems installed under the Victorian Building Code.
The City of Port Phillip’s MBS issued an emergency order on 6 November to the Owners Corporation, requiring them to have smoke detectors installed in 12 apartments within 24 hours. The owners group was told failure to comply would result in a forced evacuation order.
The order’s second requirement was for the installation of heat attenuation screens on windows on the southern side of the building. This required the corporation to order specific materials. The cost to the owners amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, none of it recoupable from the builder without undertaking litigation.
How can this be prevented?
The Fifth Estate asked City of Port Phillip if it considered there was a need for a more stringent approach to building regulations, inspections and certifications.
“Council’s MBS regularly advocates for tighter building controls through a number of channels, including the Victorian Municipal Building Surveyor Group and the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors, to improve the safety of residents wherever possible,” Mayor Bernadene Voss said.
“The state government is currently reviewing legislation in response to recent audits and we are hopeful this will bring safety improvements to the building sector.”
The City of Melbourne and its MBS were asked how this type of non-compliance could be prevented in future, and whether there were concerns around potential future legal action against issuers of certificates of occupancy if buildings are found to be non-compliant, and owners experience a drop in capital values or difficulties obtaining insurance.
“The Victorian Building Authority has referred a number of properties to the City of Melbourne municipal building surveyor for further investigation as part of the non-compliant cladding audit. The VBA referred the buildings after conducting an initial audit,” a spokesman for City of Melbourne said.
“We are undertaking investigations into referred buildings across the municipality with assistance from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and do not wish to predetermine the outcome of this process. Safety is the primary concern of this investigation. We also have a responsibility to the owners of these properties to complete a thorough assessment and have dedicated additional resources to complete the investigation as quickly as possible.
“The MBS has advocated that the Building Act needs to be reviewed, particularly with regard to multi-storey buildings with multiple ownership. A number of proposals have been put forward to address the use of non-compliant cladding, but these will need to be considered by the State Government.”
The fire brigade is not so sure about safety
Despite the majority of non-compliant buildings being deemed safe to occupy, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade has listed six of them to date as requiring an enhanced response in event of a fire.
The buildings include Lacrosse; Aura on Flinders (which was self-reported to the VBA by the builder L U Simon on the basis of having also used Alucobest cladding); the Royal Freemasons Homes of Victoria aged care facility; the Royal Women’s Hospital, built by LendLease; and Harvest Apartments.
An enhanced response means sending an increased number of fire trucks and firefighters or a different combination of firefighters and fire trucks to an incident than is sent under a normal assignment rule.
“This response has been placed on these buildings due to cladding issues, and our priority is for the safety and resilience of our firefighters and the community,” a spokesman for the MFB said.
The Fifth Estate asked Lendlease whether they would be doing anything to rectify the non-compliance of the Royal Women’s Hospital, and also what systems would be put in place to prevent this happening again.
“We continue to work with relevant authorities on this matter,” a Lendlease spokeswoman said.
The VBA says non-compliance might not be a safety risk
In its information about the risks of aluminium composite panels being used improperly in high-rise buildings, the VBA said that just because a building is not compliant, it may still be safe to occupy.
“A number of safety features in buildings protect occupants from fire. If a building has [aluminium composite panelling] that does not comply with the NCC, it may still be considered safe to occupy because of the presence of these safety features, which may include:
- early-warning systems (alarms) connected to fire and smoke detectors
- evacuation pathways protected from fire and smoke
- automatic fire sprinkler systems
- construction of internal walls to prevent the spread of fire and smoke within the building
- construction materials to limit the spread of fire
“These safety features alert occupants early, protect them from fire and smoke during evacuation and help limit the spread of fire between apartments. They are designed so that if one part of the system fails, occupants are still protected by the remaining safety features. There are also automated alert systems that notify the fire services of an alarm.”
But people aren’t getting what they pay for
However, the issue remains – people are living in, being cared for in and investing in properties that are not compliant with the requirements of the National Construction Code in terms of fire safety.
The VBA has said that “no single building practitioner group is consistently responsible for the use of ACP that does not comply with the NCC – everyone in the chain has a role to play”.
“Decisions made by different practitioners at different stages of the building process have contributed to ACP being used in ways that do not comply with the NCC.
“There appears to have been an inconsistent understanding among the building industry of the requirements of the NCC in relation to the use of ACP.”
Fire brigade lays out an agenda for industry change
The MFB at the end of last year released its recommendations for changes to the current building regulations to provide opportunities for improved detection, compliance and enforcement to better protect life and property.
MFB’s chief officer Peter Rau said that the primary objective of the proposals was to enhance community and firefighter safety.
He said the experiences of MFB since November 2014, and in particular the delay in reducing the risk of a further significant fire at the Lacrosse building nearly a year later, has led MFB to consider how the system could be improved.
MFB proposals include:
- The introduction of a compulsory accreditation scheme for high risk products such as non-compliant cladding and tighter controls to improve the standard of documentation and inspection
- To strengthen and clarify the obligation for fire safety designs and inspection
- Sprinklers to be installed in all multi storey buildings regardless of height, and sprinkler heads installed on all balconies
- That the VBA uses its audit powers to assess building work where it is detected that reports and consents were required but not obtained with regard to building regulations, or may have resulted in undetected compromises to MFB intervention, including access to fire hydrants
- The Building Act is amended to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the Municipal Building Surveyor (MBS), VBA and Registered Building Surveyor
- The VBA be appointed the MBS in relation to any building in which non-compliant external cladding is identified and enforcement action is required
- That the State Government urgently funds research and development into the most cost effective way to mitigate the risk presented by combustible external cladding
- Amend the inspection, enforcement and offence provisions in the Building Act and Regulations to empower MFB’s Chief Officer to issue infringement notices, bring prosecution proceedings, and also obtain court orders requiring action to be taken to remove the safety risk.
Mr Rau said the MFB was determined not to lose the opportunity to learn from the Lacrosse fire, which represented a near miss, and shone a light on current regulatory failure.
“The Lacrosse fire was a defining moment for us. It was an extremely challenging fire, and experienced firefighters commented that they had never seen fire spread so rapidly. It was fortuitous that the installed fire sprinkler system operated well above its designed capability, and it was extremely fortunate that no one was injured or killed.
“There are failures in the current system that need to be urgently addressed, and MFB is calling for change and making recommendations for reform.”
The proposal document states at one point, “the MFB recognises that change can be slow”.
“It can also be perceived as costly. The MFB will advocate for the changes proposed in this report whenever the opportunity presents itself. The MFB accepts that it is not, nor should it be, the most important party in building regulation in Melbourne or Victoria.
“The MFB is, however, in a unique position. If change does not occur it is the MFB who must attend the catastrophic fires that will occur. It is the MFB who must decide to send more firefighting appliances to some buildings because the risk to life is greater than if the building was constructed properly. These appliances travel at speed on Melbourne’s roads; which is not without risk. It is also the MFB who must enforce potentially hefty false alarm charges for such buildings if there are false alarms occurring when multiple firefighting appliances are sent.
“It is the MFB firefighters who must confront risks and try to assist scared, vulnerable, elderly and/or infirm worried residents. It is the MFB Chief Officer who must make decisions about whether the risk at a fire is so great that firefighters must be withdrawn to protect their own safety, with residents consequently unable to be assisted as they otherwise would.
“The MFB’s view is that change is needed so that the MFB is not forced to make these decisions and the community does not bear the human and financial cost of regulatory failure. The public should have confidence in their fire brigade. The MFB cannot provide the level of confidence in firefighting response to some buildings in Melbourne because, frankly, the buildings should never have been built in the way they were.”