The world’s attention was drawn to combustible cladding following the significant loss of life resulting from London’s Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. The risk of combustible façade materials is not new news. The issue has previously been highlighted by the building fire in Melbourne in 2014 and various other fires in Dubai and China. However, due to recent events and social drive the use of these materials is now under significant scrutiny. There is an expectation from the public that all combustible cladding is identified and replaced to ensure such a disastrous event does not occur again.
Grenfell Tower in London
What is ACP?
An ACP is made up of two thin aluminium sheets bonded to a polymer core; it is the polymer core that makes this product combustible. ACP’s with a 30% or more polymer core have a poor resistance to fire due to aluminium’s low melting point, thus creating the potential for fire to spread up from panel to panel. The highest risk ACP products have a 100% polymer core, which is usually made from polyethylene.
Why has ACP been used as external façade cladding when it is known to be combustible?
Combustible elements on the external facades of high-rise buildings were formerly banned until the early 1990s, after which they were then allowed to be installed to a “performance standard” under the Building Code of Australia (BCA). It was this change in the building code that led to the increased use of ACP in the industry.
Unlike Grenfell, the majority of residential high-rise buildings with ACP in Australia have internal sprinklered systems installed. This reduces the ability for fire to spread internally but the risk of fire spread across the external facades of buildings, and subsequently the impact on the internal parts of that building, has perhaps been underestimated. What recent events have highlighted is firstly that the current industry norm for sprinkler coverage is not acceptable, and secondly that the cladding of some buildings is not compliant with combustibility requirements.
Which buildings have ACP?
By February 2019, 447 buildings were deemed to be high risk by the NSW Cladding Taskforce and 679 privately owned buildings with combustible cladding have been identified by the Victorian Building Authority.
In Western Australia, 1,734 buildings with ACP have been identified and 238 require detailed risk assessment. Of those 238, 120 risk assessments have been complete with only 2 buildings requiring further action so far.
1,117 buildings in South Australia were identified, with 47 deemed at risk, and ACP is widely used in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), with at least 5 ACT Health buildings and 46 school sites identified.
If you’re in QLD, owners must complete an online check list to determine at risk buildings for further action. Click here for instructions.
Who is to blame?
On 28 February 2019, Judge Ted Woodward awarded the owners of the Lacrosse building more than AUD$5.7 million in damages following the cladding fire on 24 November 2014 caused by a resident’s abandoned cigarette on a balcony. The use of ACP on the east and west facades was allowed due to ‘defects in its design’ which caused the building to be ‘non-compliant’. The judge found that the fire engineer failed to recognise and warn the builder of this; and that the building surveyor failed to exercise due care when it issued the building permit for the architectural plans. The damages claim was apportioned between the fire engineer (39%), certifier (33%), architect (25%), and builder (3%).
This ruling is by no means a blanket decision that will apply to all cases however, it does emphasise that abiding to the industry norm is no defence in court if that common practice is inadequate.
But what about government?
The Lacrosse, Grenfell, and more recently the Neo200 building fires have spurred a whole-of-government response to the fire safety risks posed by external combustible cladding, resulting in new laws which commenced in October 2018. Whether the government should be held accountable for remedial measures if buildings now identified as high risk were originally designed and constructed compliantly is yet to be determined.
What does it all mean for building owners?
Building owners are responsible for adhering to the relevant state legislation and now need to work with their local authorities, building consultants, fire engineers and insurers to go through the process of identifying the risk to their property, which includes:
- Identification of materials
- Evaluating the exposure
- Remedial actions for consideration
The Australian Taxation Office has ruled that cladding replacement works are not ‘repairs’ and are not tax deductible for commercial buildings. However, risk mitigation may not necessarily mean full replacement of the entire cladding façade. Typically, a combination of partial replacement and increased fire safety measures, such as external drenchers adjacent to fire egress routes or increased smoke detection, is the most cost–effective solution.
Either way, action must be taken. As Judith Hackitt, who headed the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster said, a Grenfell-like event in Australia is “entirely foreseeable”.
To discuss this important issue in more detail please feel free to get in touch here.