Fire safety, as it should, has risen to become a major discussion point for Australia’s construction industry. The recent Grenfell tragedy has sent shockwaves around the world and has raised questions around the adequacy of Australia’s current regulatory environment and the accountability of the industry.
At the heart of this is the use of aluminium cladding (aluminium sheeting bonded to a polyethylene core), which has been identified as the fundamental cause of major building fires, including both the Grenfell disaster and the Melbourne Lacrosse building fire of 2014.
As an example, a recent audit conducted by the Victoria Building Authority focused on high-rise buildings has found that cladding on one in every two high-rises was non-compliant. The number of buildings with highly flammable cladding on a national scale is currently unknown.
What steps are being taken to ensure radical improvement in fire safety in Australian construction, and are they enough?
Regulation is key, so where are the gaps?
In July this year, two new government initiatives to investigate compliance and enforcement challenges were announced. This included the establishment of a taskforce by the Victorian Government, led by Victorian Liberal premier Ted Baillieu and former Labor deputy premier John Thwaites. The aim was to speed up the assessment of buildings across Victoria, to identify unsafe cladding, and provide recommendations on improving compliance.
The aim was to speed up the assessment of buildings across Victoria, to identify unsafe cladding.
Moreover, the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) pledged to commission a report on the enforcement challenge, in addition to working with the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) to accelerate implementation of measures through the National Construction Code (NCC).
The new probes were welcome moves, and well received by the industry. The CEO of Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA) Scott Williams commented at the time, "It's important we have a rigorous process to identify these buildings, mitigate the risk they pose in the short term, and rectify the problems over the longer term.
"Through the ABCB and the NCC, Australia has some of the best building codes in the world. The key challenge for the industry is the compliance and enforcement of those codes, which needs minimum competency requirements and ongoing education in industry."
However, there have been increasing concerns that Australia currently lacks consistent regulation at a national level. Queensland and Victoria have more advanced measures in place, such as prescribed qualifications for those involved in fire safety testing prior to construction and post-construction inspection. Nevertheless, such regulation is not present across all states. This fragmentation ultimately undermines effective enforcement and auditing throughout the industry as a whole.
This fragmentation ultimately undermines effective enforcement and auditing throughout the industry as a whole.
High-rise vs low-rise, which is worse?
While much attention has been given to the use of cladding in high-rise buildings, this should not lead us to overlook the challenges present in lower-rise buildings, particularly those between five to eight storeys. Crucially, unlike their higher-rise counterparts, buildings of less than 25 metres do not need to have sprinkler protection.
Speaking to Sourceable.net, Scott Williams emphasised that such buildings are the most vulnerable in Australia. “What we would say is that that type of building (Class 2 residential) that hasn’t got sprinklers… If you introduced there potentially non-compliant building materials, if the side of the building wasn’t built correctly, or if the fire separating from a passive perspective was not right, we would have a very vulnerable building.”
Clearly, highly flammable cladding panels are available in the Australian market.
So, on the one hand, there is a need for tighter and more consistent regulation alongside improvements in enforcement and compliance. This includes the need for an improved education system in which fire safety engineers have mandatory qualifications and independence from private building surveyors.
But what about supply? Clearly, highly flammable cladding panels are available in the Australian market. A couple of weeks ago, Labor announced that it would extend the proposed ban on importation of polyethylene core aluminium composite panels to the sale and use of locally produced non compliant cladding panels. Yet there is currently no agreement on imports, which means highly flammable cladding is still making its way into Australian construction projects.