While recent high-rise fires both in Australia and abroad have severely dimmed the reputation of aluminium composite panels, the building products can still be used safely as long as consumers remain well apprised of what to look out for.
Ever since an official investigation concluded that aluminium composite panels (ACPs) were a key factor behind the blaze which broke out at the Lacrosse apartment complex in Melbourne's Docklands district toward the end of 2014, the highly popular building product has become a frequent object of negative attention within the Australian media as well as the country's property and construction sectors.
Damage to the reputation of ACPs has since been further compounded by the occurrence of similar blazes in high-rise buildings in Dubai, as well as an alert sounded by the Victorian Building Authority calling for members of industry to be aware of the dangers associated with the use of flammable cladding.
According to John Gilbert of Alutile Australia, the adverse media coverage has had a severe impact on the popularity of ACPs, with sales down 50 per cent compared to the same period last year.
Gilbert argues, however, that ACPs remain an excellent and perfectly safe product if consumers remain well apprised of the appropriate standards governing their usage, and that the benefits of the cladding make them essential many forms of modern construction.
"Aluminium composite panels are a wonderful product, and this is evident from the amount of usage around the world. Do they really deserve the bad publicity that they've had over the last 18 months?" said Gilbert. "They've been in Australia for over three decades, and are the exterior cladding of choice for architects because they have so many advantages - they're lightweight, waterproof and versatile when it comes to colours and appearance.
"Their low weight makes them easy and cheap to install, and they can be used to transform the exterior of a building completely. In Australia they're employed on every kind of building conceivable, from law courts, to hospitals to shopping centres."
Gilbert notes that what makes ACPs flammable isn't their metal content, but the cores which can be manufactured from a variety of materials.
"Aluminium won't flame - otherwise you couldn't recycle it. It turns molten at around 480 degrees depending on the grade, but it doesn't catch fire," he said. "What burns is the core, and for this reason combustibility tests are performed with the aluminium skins removed."
When it comes to determining whether or not ACPs pass muster and are safe for use on high-rise buildings, Gilbert advises that consumers focus on whether or not the product satisfies the non-combustibility standards mandated by the BCA, instead of focusing on CodeMark certification.
"Aluminium cladding should meet the AS-1530-1-1994 test standard - especially if you want cladding on a high-rise buildings," he said. "This means it's non combustible, and is the standard required by the VBC and the BCA for buildings above three storeys, or hospitals and public facilities."
ACPs that do not satisfy this standard can be installed on high-rise buildings, yet require additional measures which increase the installation cost and render the panel a mere external decoration.
"ACP that does not have AS-1530-1-1994 Certification can be installed in conjunction with other fire retardant materials that are deemed non-combustible," said Gilbert. "You need to get a third engineer and the builders to agree, as well as the agreement of the local authorities to place six millimetres of fibro-cement plus fire-checked plaster behind the panels, which is normally the standard now for multi-storey buildings.
"It’s costly to put a cement sheet behind then the panel, however, and as a result of this process the panel is then classed as purely decorative."
Gilbert also advises consumers to not discriminate against products solely on the basis of their country of origin, contending that Chinese-made goods have been unfairly tarred with the same brush by the press.
"In most media reports, Chinese-manufactured ACP was singled out as being the major problem in terms of fire performance, which is a pack of lies," he said. "If you spend the money in China, they can manufacture products as good as any place anywhere else.
"Unfortunately, however, as with all products manufactured in the country, there is marked difference between the high-end goods and low-end shoddy stuff."