Australia should require full-scale testing to determine the fire safety of all cladding materials used in building and construction, a leading international expert says.

Delivering a presentation in Melbourne on testing methods being used around the world, Kingspan Insulated Panels building technology director Mark Harris called for full-scale testing involving large fire sources and a significant area of material to be required on all cladding used in high-rise construction throughout Australia.

Speaking after the presentation, Harris told Sourceable that cladding can be dangerous if the wrong type of material is used, and that use of combustible materials such as aluminium composite panels which contain a polyethylene core needs to be strictly controlled.

But he said in Australia, confusion surrounding compliance when it comes to façade systems had led to a number of buildings being clad with materials which did not meet requirements under the Building Code of Australia.

“What we need to do clearly is to get to a situation in Australia like we have in say North America, the UK and now in the UAE, where there are very tight regulations around the control of façade cladding materials,” Harris said.

“What that’s all about is doing large-scale testing on these materials to make sure that in a real large scale situation, they perform well and do not ignite and don’t spread the fire.”

Harris also called for cladding to be inspected after being installed, saying this would help avoid the situation of combustible cladding existing in buildings without this being known.

Around Australia, the issue of combustible cladding came to public attention in 2014 when a fire which was started on the eighth floor of the Lacrosse building at Melbourne’s Docklands ripped up the side of the building to the 21st floor in a matter of minutes amid use of what the Metropolitan Fire Brigade found to be combustible cladding on the façade.

A subsequent investigation of 170 apartment towers around the city by the Victorian Building Authority found that 51 percent contained cladding which did not comply with BCA standards, although apart from Lacrosse only one building – Harvest Apartments in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne – required immediate action.

Whilst the National Construction Code does require cladding materials to be tested, the acceptability of these materials has historically been determined predominately by internal fire tests and/or small scale reaction to fire tests involving relatively small fire sources and sample of restricted size.

Whilst these can help screen out some materials which do not exhibit acceptable performance, Kingspan technical director Dr Mark Tatem says only large-scale testing provides a fall indication of how a cladding system would be likely to behave when subject to a large fire in a real scenario.

Harris welcomes the recent development of a standard based on large scale fire testing of facades by Standards Australia and the Australian Building Codes Board, but called on the regulators to go further.

“What they need to do is make this testing mandatory so that every new building which is clad with these materials has to go through a mandatory fire test on a large scale so you can make sure that those materials are not going to cause a fire hazard to the occupants of the building,” he said.

  • How do we fix what is already up there? Make the people responsible for its incorporation into the works responsible for pulling it down and replacing it — and then compensate unit owners for selling them units purchased in good faith and not in accordance with the code to which they would have had a rightful expectation they were purchasing. Is the powerful construction company lobby exerting influence? What do our building certifiers and surveyors do at present — take their word for it.

  • As all buildings >25m effective height have sprinklers, an answer is to extend the system to balconies ( should already be there) and thence to wall wetting external sprinklers to AS2118.2. This will cover most buildings.
    Installation can mostly be effected from inside the building with minimal external works.
    The water supply that is calculated for the internal sprinklers should be adequate.
    The key to protection is exactly the same as for internal sprinklers, defecting and controlling the fire in its early stage will stop spread.

  • For an effective regulator it should really be quite simple. When private certification came into being the idea was proportionate liability and insurance. Whoever is responsible should be held accountable either by themselves or their insurance company. If that pushes them to the wall than so be it. They should have done their job properly in the first place.