When the Docklands Lacrosse Apartment Building Fire erupted in November 2014 the photos of the firestorm suggested there was something very strange and wrong.
The subsequent investigation conducted by the Metropolitan fire brigade which concluded at the end of April 2015 confirmed the fire emanated from a cigarette butt left in rubbish that ignited the exterior decorative panels because they were in fact highly inflammable, and were the very reason the fire shot from balcony to balcony as it raced to the 21st level within four minutes.
It does not appear conceivable that these exterior panels could burn in such a manner as the company that manufactures them in China produces some six million square metres of them annually. It appears they are fitted to many new buildings in Europe and no one knows how many buildings are fitted with them in Australia.
A fire of this nature generates interest and research, and we now find similar fires involving the same cladding panels have occurred overseas in past years that have resulted in the loss of life and serious injury. We can only be thankful no one was hurt as a result of this spectacular Docklands fire. However, it has displaced hundreds of residents that have no idea of when they may be able to return to their homes.
The MFB report found the start of the fire was accidental, however the resulting outcome could not be considered accidental as the alucobest panels simply erupted in flames in a manner that can only be considered a firestorm.
There is no doubt something like this could happen again, as there is considerable history overseas over the past few years and even as recently as February this year when the Dubai Marina Torch apartment building caught fire through a barbecue or shisha coal left out on one of the buildings balconies.
The Torch building is a “super-tall” structure of 86 floors and the fire raced up the building in the same way as the Docklands fire. The blaze was fuelled by non-fire retardant external cladding the same or similar to the Docklands Lacrosse apartment building fire late last year.
According to engineers, when these decorative panels are installed they are fixed on a grid that stands them off the main structure and allows the fire to burn on both sides. Consequently the fire is intense and very fast.
One overseas engineer has compared the amount of flammable material contained in the cladding of a large building fitted with this type of composite panel to that of a tanker delivering petrol to a filling station.
It would appear the Fire Protection Research Foundation has funded a research project conducted in Melbourne titled Fire Hazards of exterior Wall Assemblies containing Combustible Components. This document was researched both here in Australia and overseas, where it listed many fires in apartment towers fuelled by aluminium composite panels.
Its content reveals many statistics including those of civilian deaths and injuries. It also cites the number of fires (which number in the thousands) that are directly linked to exterior wall fires such as the Docklands fire. The cost of the property damage from these fires is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The research went back to 2003 in NSW and 2005 in New Zealand. In 2005 there were 95 exterior wall fires in NSW and 290 in New Zealand.
Clearly authorities in Australia would be well aware of the flammable wall cladding issue, but they appear to have been mute on the subject.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the Infinity Electrical Cable recall revolving around electrical cable sold by the Masters outlets that was found to be faulty as its casing would harden with exposure to heat and crumble to expose live wires.
The authorities, including the ACCC, are pursuing the importers which is a lost cause as they are now in liquidation. The manufacturer in China is too difficult a target according to the authorities.
While obviously many products are manufactured to our standards and are fit for our purposes, there is also the risk of products that don’t meet our compliance criteria but appear to land on our shores without the checks and balances, as with the Alucobest panels installed on the Docklands apartment building.
The government suggests China has become our greatest trading partner and embraces continuing and ongoing trade with that country. This can be mutually beneficial, but lessons should be learned and we should be mindful that not everything that comes out of China is necessarily good for Australia.
So who pays for an event such as the Docklands fire?
The Victorian regulator the VBA is unaware of the extent of the use of non-compliant materials and has requested assistance from the state’s builders to target buildings with the Alucobest product.
Overseas, the authorities are looking to the body corporate agents, developers, builders, surveyors, engineers, and architects to shoulder blame while they increase the compliance regime to counter the risk of further fires.
The insurers of these buildings are also seeking compensation from the same entities and when compliance is escalated, the insurer will only reinstate to the compliance level that existed when they first provided the cover.
It would appear many buildings that have suffered these fires may never be rebuilt or it may be years before the litigation settles and those accountable are targeted and possibly made responsible.
In the meantime, it is the consumer – who has purchased a seemingly compliant apartment – who is left out in the cold, bewildered, confused, with no idea of what to do or how to resolve their circumstances.
The building industry itself has a lot to answer for, but the majority of the blame can be placed squarely at the feet of the regulator who is charged with the responsibility of regulating our industry and ensuring compliance.
Be mindful as it is the builders of the industry that fund the regulator and the compliance, and the previous Building Commission was directly responsible for a dramatic decline in basic standards and quality of buildings. The new Victorian Building Authority is still finding its way but collectively they have failed their duty of care.
The building industry, compliance, and regulation must dramatically improve before we have a real disaster.
As an industry we can and must do better!