Co-operative approach needed on flammable cladding problem

Australians don’t often think of fire standards. That’s mainly because our standards are so high, and disasters are so rare.

We’ve always understood that people are more important than an extra buck — and if we want to promote the benefits of density, then density must be safe.

Last week the Senate brought down its interim report following the 2014 Lacrosse apartment block fire in Melbourne. Fortunately, what could have been a disaster was averted because of the fast action of Melbourne fire brigade and the broader safety features of the building.

It was a world away from the Grenfell disaster in London – which was a human tragedy and a shameful regulatory failure. Grenfell represented multiple failures: flammable cladding, no sprinkler systems, single fire stairs and no building alarm. Australia simply does not build buildings like that.

While the buildings had radically different safety systems, they had one thing in common: a particular type of cladding made from polyethylene (PE) core aluminium composite panels. In both cases, it helped spread the fire up the external cladding of the building.

While there are some claddings that are fire retardant, PE is not. So the place of PE cladding is rightly under debate.

However, under the existing building code, PE can be approved by a fire safety engineer — and be completely safe — if it sits within an appropriate fire safety system. Stopping fire or retarding it is the result of many factors interacting, so the situation is not as simple as it might seem.

The Senate committee’s recommendation to ban the import and sale of PE cladding mirrors the informal decisions many property corporates have made in recent months to no longer use it.

Yes, a ban will add costs to production, but not exorbitantly so — and frankly, public confidence is more important than small additional costs.

This brings us to the question, what should we be doing with those existing buildings that have been built using various forms of cladding over the past 20 years? How do we distinguish between PE cladding and other forms of materials? And how do we ensure the priority is given to those situations which are truly unsafe, and those which merely would not conform with current standards?

The good news is that over the past year state, territory and local governments have been working with industry on the issue.

Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia are undertaking reviews of large buildings. The Queensland government passed legislation addressing cladding last month and the NSW government has established an inter-agency fire safety and external wall cladding taskforce. We support these efforts.

As well, industry participants are reviewing their own buildings and in many cases, the buildings they played a role in constructing up to a decade ago. This is important because the flammable properties of the materials used are not obvious to the naked eye. This is a prudent step that we encourage all owners to undertake.

Encouragingly, Property Council members are reporting very few instances of genuine safety risk — and are working through less critical issues that have become apparent during the review process.

As well, governments have identified buildings that will warrant further investigation. No two buildings are the same and different circumstances will require different solutions. In some cases, the cladding will have to go, and in other cases it will not matter because of the scope, layout or position of the cladding, or because of the other fire safety measures the building has. It is also important not to mislead the public on this issue.

People shouldn’t lie awake at night wondering if their homes are safe if there is no cause for concern. It is incumbent on everyone — government, industry and the media — to be straight with the community, and also not overstate the situation. In the overwhelming number of buildings being assessed, the issues relate to non-conforming products and not immediate fire safety risk.

Of course, there is still serious policy work ahead.

The Senate committee made recommendations for a national licensing scheme for all trades and professionals involved in the building construction industry, as well as other measures to increase accountability across the supply chain. The challenge is to deliver these in a way that is national consistency.

As well, the National Construction Code is being amended so there is a new verification method for external wall assemblies, increased stringency for sprinkler protection of balconies, clarifying language in the code for external wall claddings, and revision of the evidence of suitability provisions. Again, changes welcomed by the industry.

What is also vital is that our nation’s politicians continue to resist the temptation to play politics with the issue. There is enormous good will with this issue — at a time when people might be disheartened by governments. State, territory and federal governments from both sides have been working together. That’s why we mustn’t start the ‘‘blame game’’ or start claiming our buildings are covered in petrol — they aren’t.

The best people to judge the safety of individual buildings are fire safety experts and not politicians. It is these experts who can make the best assessments about existing buildings.

Despite the complexity of this challenge, I am an optimist about the response. If we can keep our focus on the people who will benefit from these improved standards rather than turf wars or on political word games, then we will have ensured that Australia’s outstanding record on fire safety is maintained.

First published in The Australia on 14 September 2017.