It’s unsurprising that the recent spotlight on substandard building products has shaken public trust in the building and construction industry. This problem is not going away. Solving it is critical. The best way to do this is for government and industry to take joint responsibility and act together.
Issues related to aluminium composite panels have been in the back of regulators’ minds for over two decades. ACPs were first patented in 1971. Less expensive, aesthetically pleasing, adaptable and energy efficient, within three decades they were quite commonplace. Over 200 manufactures now produce ACPs worldwide. Their popularity boomed in the 1990s, just as Australia began importing more construction goods from overseas.
Aluminium composite panels are not inherently dangerous. Those that are combustible are permitted in some capacity, but not up multiple floors of high-rise buildings. Building professionals and government departments should have known for decades about the effect different core materials in the sandwich-type panels have on their risk of combustibility. Non-combustible, fire retardant and flammable ACPs are all allowed but each in restricted ways to ensure public safety. Electing to use combustible cladding in a situation where non-combustible cladding is required – from not only a regulatory but also a safety point of view – is a misuse of building products. The prescriptions are there; they should not be ignored.
The Lacrosse Building fire sounded alarm bells
Australia’s wakeup call was on November 2014, in the early hours of a late spring Tuesday morning in Melbourne. A fire started on an eighth-floor balcony of the Lacrosse Building, a mostly residential tower in the Docklands area. Within about 10 minutes, the fire had spread up the facade of 13 storeys, to level 21 of the 23-storey tower. Almost 500 people were evacuated and needed emergency accommodation. While the cause of the fire was a discarded, still-glowing cigarette butt, combustible aluminium composite panels were the reason the flames moved so quickly.
The Lacrosse Building fire, however, has not been the most frightening case of combustible cladding.
Two and a half years later, the fire at the Grenfell Tower in London burned for about 60 hours. It caused 72 deaths. Once again, combustible cladding was not the cause of the fire but it contributed to the rapid spread of the flames. Complicating factors led the fire to burn for such an extended period over much of the building’s façade.
Just this year at the beginning of February, the Neo200 apartment block on Melbourne’s Spencer Street caught fire in a similar manner to the Lacrosse Building. This time, the fire burned more slowly and spread up five storeys. Combustible cladding was, again, a contributor. One person was taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Combustible cladding puts lives at risk
These events created a distinct feeling of unease among building professionals, industry members, government bodies and the Australian public. Outrage continues over how these high-rise residential buildings were ever allowed to be clad in such easily flammable materials. It is an oversight on the part of the building and construction industry and Australian governments.
Combustible cladding puts lives at risk. Government and industry have responded with due seriousness. The protection of public safety and a commitment to reducing risks have been common themes. It’s not all talk: important steps have been made in the way of research, namely last year’s Senate Inquiry and the Building Confidence report by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir. There’s also been some government action.
Queensland’s “chain of responsibility” laws a model to consider
The state governments of Victoria and Queensland initiated audits into combustible cladding in 2017, while Queensland also passed legislation to establish a “chain of responsibility.” This chain links everyone involved in the design, manufacture, importation, supply and installation of building products. They now each have a duty to make sure, as far as reasonably practicable, that the products they are working with are not non-conforming building products. The Building Ministers’ Forum has advised other states and territories to look to Queensland’s Chain of Responsibility amendment legislation as a model to consider for their own jurisdictions.
The separate audit taskforces in Victoria and Queensland have established just how wide the scope of the problem of non-conforming building products is. Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital was the first focus of Queensland’s cladding audit. All 24,000 square metres of its external cladding was found to be combustible and will cost up to $12 million to remove and replace.
We need a national approach to unsuitable building products
Industry groups have universally called for a national approach to addressing the problems and risks of unsuitable building products. The Australia Institute of Building Surveyors (AIBS) expressed disappointment in the Building Ministers’ Forum for not conducting any industry consultation regarding their implementation of the Building Confidence report’s recommendations. Along with the Fire Protection Association of Australia, the AIBS believes that a nationally consistent framework or code is required to implement the recommendations. The 24 recommendations proposed by Shergold and Weir are largely supported by the building and construction industry. Similarly, the Australian Institute of Architects believes that building quality and safety must be a government priority. Through consultation, dedication and, most importantly, a united approach, government and industry bodies could address building industry issues head on.
Combustible cladding may have sparked these audits, laws and responses into being, but the underlying issues are compliance and conformance. Or, rather, lack thereof. Products used in a non-compliant manner do not comply with the National Construction Code. Non-conforming products are those that claim to be something they are not, do not meet the necessary standards for their intended use or are marketed or supplied with the aim to deceive those who use them. When a product does not comply or does not conform, it can have dreadful consequences. The consequences on the human environment are easier to see. What may be harder to recognise are the consequences that non-conforming building products and non-compliance have on the natural environment.
The natural environment also suffers from inappropriately used building products
The built environment has always had an extensive effect on the natural world and natural systems. The impact of construction goes so far as to damage the water cycle, lower air quality and contribute to loss of soil. Governments and organisations in the construction industry work hard to reduce negative impacts on the environment. Inappropriately used building products, however, create pollution, damage and waste, all of which is avoidable.
This is unsustainable. The replacement of the combustible cladding on the Lacrosse Building’s facade is costing around $24 million. The discarded cladding and other waste generated by the rectification process will contribute to the 20 million tonnes of waste created by construction and demolition each year. In total, Australia produces up to 67 million tonnes of waste per annum. A lax attitude towards compliance and conformance is not in line with the position Australia otherwise likes to take on sustainability. The negative impact on the environment is one more facet of the building product problem.
A national approach is the key to truly tackling the issue of non-compliant and non-conforming building products. But a national approach cannot solely involve industry, just as it cannot start and end with government. Government and industry bodies already have common goals: regaining public trust in the building and construction industry, improving quality of construction and ensuring the appropriate use of building products. When they take responsibility and act together, government and industry can create meaningful change.
Richard Choy is chief executive officer of NATSPEC. NATSPEC has developed the National Construction Product Register to mitigate the risks associated with non-conforming building products. The NCPR is a public online database for construction products with verified evidence of conformity. NATSPEC confirms that each submitted product’s conformity certification is valid.