Suburban Settlements

Covid-19 impact on fire-proof cladding regulation

The tragedy of London’s Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 brought into stark and devastating reality the issues associated with poor passive fire protection systems and inappropriate, highly flammable cladding materials in residential and commercial tower buildings. However, the issue goes back further than that. For example, the 2014 Lacrosse Building cladding fire in Melbourne’s Docklands Precinct.

Like many other major cities globally, building cladding has been in use in Melbourne since the 1970s. One of the most common forms of building cladding is aluminium composite panels which include a plastic-based core and can be highly flammable.

The extent to which flammable building cladding is an issue in Melbourne is not fully understood, given its long history in use. However, since 2017 the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) has been undertaking an audit of buildings constructed since 1997 and over two storeys high, with the intent of quantifying the issue. The Authority’s website indicates it has undertaken 2,200 audits to date to determine the presence of combustible expanded polystyrene or composite aluminium cladding. Some 360 buildings are thought to have been identified so far.

A separate organisation, Cladding Safety Victoria, is tasked with supporting the efforts of building owners and the building industry to rectify the issue of combustible cladding. However, as recently as 2019, a fire was started by a discarded cigarette in the Neo200 CBD apartment building in Melbourne. That building had been audited by the VBA and found to represent only moderate risk of fire.

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That event saw Victoria’s planning minister call for a national approach to banning combustible cladding materials and pressure the Federal government to take action.

So where is the issue today?

As Victoria’s economy slowly reopens following the extended COVID-19 enforced lockdowns, Cladding Safety Victoria has been actively communicating with the sector about the continuation of cladding removal works (which are a permitted activity).

However, combustible cladding materials are still available on the market and it is not entirely clear that Victoria’s building construction regulatory framework is capable of managing the inspection regimes required to ensure that it is not installed by unscrupulous developers looking for cheap construction options.

Further, as reported in The Age as recently as April this year, more than twenty years of sub-standard building construction regulation means that many of the affected buildings have a litany of other construction defects which negatively impact their fire safety

It is quite clear that the Victorian Government is committed to action on the issue of combustible cladding and has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to address the historic legacy. As the economy starts to open up, it is essential that this work continues, at pace. However, it is equally critical that the new wave of developments is carefully regulated to ensure the problem is not perpetuated through lack of effective regulation.

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