Combustible cladding is undoubtedly now the building industry’s biggest concern. Recent events have led to thousands of properties across all sectors identified as at risk thanks to having been clad in what is now known to be highly flammable material.
The dangers of elements in aluminium composite panelling (ACP) and certain other polymer-containing materials were brought to the fore by Melbourne’s 2014 Lacrosse Building fire and the 2017 London Grenfell Tower fire. Both cases demonstrated just how quickly certain cladding can escalate a fire with frightening speed, resulting in catastrophic events that could have been avoided, followed by battles of who to blame.
“This has been on the radar of fire brigades for more than 20 years but nobody was listening,” says John McGirr, co-director of a leading Australian building inspection firm Cladding Compliance Australia (CCA). “Unfortunately tragedies have to happen before governments react, and because of the legal fallout in London from Grenfell our government doesn’t want to have the same issues here.”
Buildings owners across the nation must now deal with numerous matters from arranging inspections and deciding on rectification schemes to the vexed – and evolving – subject of who foots the bill.
Ensuring rectification is done properly in the first place is vital to avoid future insurance or legal woes, so engaging knowledgeable people from the fire or building industries who can correctly identify offending materials is highly recommended. Also check whether your building certifiers and fire safety engineers meet state government and insurance company requirements, and make sure the cladding tests are carried out by a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) certified laboratory recognised by the Insurance Council of Australia.
Mr McGirr says a building inspection is generally a four-step process, starting with a building façade assessment.
Following an onsite inspection, a desktop review of the building specifications is done to ascertain which façade material was used as well as its location and extent before a decision is made on whether further inspection is required.
If so, the next step is preparation of a Facade Combustibility Test & Report, or core testing.
“We use building professionals, which isn’t mandatory, to take the core samples,” Mr McGirr says. “We do this though as whenever you change a façade or do any intrusive investigation you want to use professionals who are able to seal it back up again and ensure there are no leaks.”
Assessing the risk
Several 30-50mm core samples are taken from each facade and sent to a NATA approved laboratory for testing, allowing a comprehensive report of the nature and composition of the facade material to be compiled.
“If the test results reveal a polymer content then depending on the amount of polymer the product may be deemed non compliant and we advise its removal,” Mr McGirr says.
Following this a third step may see the C10 fire engineer find a way to implement a ‘performance solution’ and allow the material remain on the building, although Mr McGirr says in 99% of cases “it has to go”.
The fourth step is the façade rectification which inevitably runs well over the $1 million-plus range and is the “most daunting part of the process for our clients” Mr McGirr says.
“However overall control of the project is maintained by an owner’s corporation or client / landlord while a company such as ours simply project manages it.”
CCA chooses to use two materials - either 3 millimetre solid aluminium or compressed fibre cement (CFC).
“CFC is heavy – it’s not bad, although under fire conditions it can rapidly expand and compromise the product’s integrity but it doesn’t have the fire extension that polymers have.
“Solid aluminium is what we advise our builders to use to replace non-compliant composite panels. Although panels with under 30% polymer are deemed compliant we strongly recommend their replacement as they can also present an unacceptable fire risk”
For more information
For more information and updates about state specific laws and regulations relating to combustible cladding, visit the links to your local government websites below:
New South Wales: https://www.nsw.gov.au/
South Australia: https://www.sa.gov.au/
Western Australia: https://www.wa.gov.au/
Northern Territory: https://nt.gov.au/
Australian Capital Territory: https://www.act.gov.au/