The devastating fire that has destroyed the Grenfell Tower building along with the lives of many of its occupants has naturally been a topic of much commentary.

This disaster can provide a warning to authorities here in Australia but the opportunity will be wasted if any focus is strictly limited to the use of a particular building material. While inevitably it must be found as being a primary factor, this catastrophic fire wasn’t simply the ‘fault’ of the materials used as part of the cladding system on the external building facade. A detailed analysis on the combustible nature of the expanded polymer insulation and cladding system should not be allowed to be used as the scapegoat.

These materials in have been around for decades. There is a mountain of technical data for new and composite materials, building systems and construction methodologies currently in use and those that will become available into the future. Some must potentially pose similar serious fire risk or will present hazards of another nature.

To manage these risks properly, the focus must be on how a few thousand square metres of highly combustible material could come to be installed on the building’s façades – not in 1972 when the building was originally constructed, but just last year as part of a multimillion dollar refurbishment project that was completed in 2016.

With this in mind, any defence based on an ignorance of the potential risks is entirely irrelevant, and suggestions of cost saving short cuts being in some way responsible are misguided. There has been and are always significant pressure to manage the project budget against its cost estimate. It is the most common feature of every building construction project bar a few examples where a government client has a bottomless taxpayer purse to draw upon. There are always options to use ‘cheaper’ products to achieve similar outcomes, but there is never an ability to substitute them for use of a non-compliant product.

And the core fact of this tragedy is that the use of this façade cladding constitutes the carrying out of ‘defective’ and ‘non-compliant’ building works within the context of the construction industry’s use and meaning of those terms. So the questions that need definitive answers must focus on the following:

  • Why did the project designer/architect select a non-compliant product as a façade cladding?
  • Why did the building contractor install it without evidence of the product being ‘fit for purpose’?
  • What did the building surveyor/certifier do to confirm its compliance and approve the work?

I’m sure you could add to the list by suggesting that government or local council as the project’s client should also have their specific roles examined. Ultimately, the three primary roles mentioned above are the main players in this and most other construction project scenarios. And any person operating as a ‘professional’ within the building design, construction and certification industry, whether they are in London or right here in Australia, would have had at the very least, an acute awareness of the potential risks involved in using this type of material for this application. That is the reason why the focus should be on the personnel and procedures involved in the project and, it would now seem, on many other projects. An audit of the professional capabilities and the actions of everyone involved in those projects will ultimately reveal the central core of what is likely to be a much bigger problem within our industry.

Simply focusing blame on the material is a response which can be anticipated from politicians and regulatory authorities. Politicians have a need to show they are doing something immediate regardless of its usefulness. Regulators shy away from the harder reality that the mechanisms they control and have responsibility for have catastrophically failed. However, as the ‘owners’ of legislation and the creators of the statutory authorities empowered with responsibilities to apply and enforce regulations, it is the politicians who are best positioned to effect change for the better.

Evidence of blame shifting is already happening amongst Britain’s agencies. Fire testing on samples of similar cladding used on government owned high-rise apartment buildings has been done. Leaving aside the obvious question as to why such testing wasn’t carried out prior to actually installing the cladding, buildings may now need to be vacated whilst remedial work is done.

Sajid Javid, the minister for communities and local government, said that of 75 high rise apartment buildings whose cladding had been tested, none were found to be compliant. Hospitals and schools have now been examined to ensure that they too have not been constructed using similar cladding. Even where the cladding used was initially considered ‘safer’ than the specific product used in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, it still may not meet fire safety standards.

Council building surveyors can’t tell if it is safe just by brand or appearance. Nor can they use the administrative ‘paper trail’ of manufacturer certification normally relied upon to provide evidence of compliance. But they are sending out samples for fire testing…after the fire. Whatever regulatory building control system supposedly operating in Britain, clearly it wasn’t working very well. The likelihood is that we here in Australia are in a similar position to that of our British cousins.

In Australia, significant regulatory improvement will be derived via straightforward legislative changes. This should be centred on the creation of a single federal statutory authority empowered to make certain that every person who is involved within the building supply chain relationship and possessing responsibilities to design, construct, check, maintain or alter private and public building assets has demonstrated that they have received an appropriately high level of training and are qualified to be accredited with a nationally recognised work licence.

This will allow the public to have far more confidence in the fact that any mistake, error or omission made during the design, construction and certification processes that could potentially develop into a failure of such devastating consequence, will have a much greater likelihood of being identified and corrected beforehand as part of the projects overall procurement and construction procedure. In other words, a single, consistent, high standard and reliable system of accreditation that demonstrates that the works are only ever carried out by a truly professional workforce.

Perhaps our politicians can conceptualise this basic idea when they board an aircraft on their next official overseas business trip. Are they assured that the pilots sitting up front weren’t given a licence to fly a multi engine jet aircraft simply because they had achieved a few hours’ demonstrated experience operating in a glider? They had better hope the mechanical engineers who inspected and serviced the aircraft had been given proper training and were accredited to work on jet engines and airframes rather than having years of experience fixing lawnmowers. Our commercial aviation industry has largely withstood the ravages that arise within multilayered deregulated market environments because of the safety risk involved. And that’s a good thing, because you rarely get a second chance to fix ‘systemic’ defects at 35,000 feet. And neither do you get to fix up construction defects or address design and project management oversights when standing on the top floor of a burning multistorey apartment building.

With that unpleasant image fixed in their mind, it’s time for our national government to review whether the current dysfunctional array of simply relying upon multiple different state and territory bodies to decide upon the appropriate level of training and qualifications that are being issued actually correspond with the necessary levels of professional skills required for accreditation and occupational licensing. A uniform set of criteria that can better meet the challenges of our rapidly evolving building and construction environment is needed.

The enormous changes to materials technologies already impacting on building construction techniques and procurement methods used in the design and construction process requires much smarter, more highly trained and better qualified building professionals operating in the workforce. A uniform approach to accreditation and licencing of all building and construction workers is the logical step forward. And that should include everyone, from the ‘tradies’ right up to the professional levels of project and construction managers, certifiers, engineers, architects and building designers. Unfortunately, our industry, the training sector and regulatory governance have all been moving in opposite directions to effectively prevent this objective from being achieved.

As an example of the inconsistent approach we allow to continue, NSW still clings to a system whereby builders licencing is locked in the past. Regulations simply don’t recognise any need for licencing of building works other than that being carried out for residential housing.

So forget about the hospitals and school buildings that the British government is now analysing for potentially catastrophic fire defects. Here in NSW, you don’t need any accreditation to build those or any other classes of buildings. The NSW ‘one size fits all’ approach is based on a model whereby general building contractor training and licencing requirements appears to exist to meet the technical demands and administrative skills for the coordination, management and construction of a 1970s single storey freestanding brick and tile cottage.

NSW Fair Trading also thinks that if you do have that requisite level of training to achieve a satisfactory outcome on basic single storey cottage project, then a 24-storey residential apartment building would be pretty much exactly the same thing in terms of the builder’s required skills and knowledge.

By any measure, including several of our other state licencing regulators, this is a patently stupid approach devoid of any basis in logic. It may have been adequate for the latter part of the 20th century when a freestanding weatherboard cottage on a quarter acre block constituted the most typical ‘home’ building projects, but someone needs to tell our politicians that the caravan has well and truly moved on. Our legislators desperately need to catch up on nearly a half century of apathetic governance.

The smouldering remains of London’s 24-storey Grenfell Apartment structure that contained 120 apartments and up to 600 people cannot be written off as the consequences of ‘latent’ conditions associated with the 45-year-old building. Ultimately, human error associated with aspects of the design, materials selection and construction of the building and other systems are to blame.

Sadly, it may even represent the manifestation of the ‘law’ of unintended consequences. A lightweight, economical cladding system was chosen to improve thermal performance of the building. The cladding system is aesthetically pleasing, provides a long lifespan and has minimal maintenance requirements. And that is precisely what you would expect from a good specification and scope of works for a building refurbishment project of this type.

But the fire may not have occurred or would have certainly been far less of a disaster if the professional consultants and building contractors who had designed and carried out works on the project had all been highly trained and appropriately accredited personnel. Within any good organisational hierarchy, personnel must be relied upon to carry out their roles properly as highly trained people always do. If this type of basic ‘mistake’ can happen in a first world city such as London, there is no reason to doubt it can happen elsewhere. So that’s a pretty clear warning to us. So what are we doing here and now?

A report by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment claims between 1,500 to 2,500 buildings could be using highly combustible claddings. Deputy Premier Troy Grant claimed the London fire had already generated action from his NSW Government. An ABC report quoted Grant as saying: “It’s an ongoing process, obviously buildings go up, buildings come down, they change, obviously it’s not something that sits still in time. As a result of the London incident they’re reaching into local government to see the status of where we are up to and if there is more that needs to be done in relation to any potential risk across the state.”

The NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts went on to say “A previous estimate of 1,500- 2,500 buildings does not represent the scale or number of affected buildings. There is no known data source on the location of buildings with aluminium composite panelling.”

The NSWLGA president Keith Rhoades said he thought a figure of 2,500 buildings could actually be an under-estimate.

“There did not appear to be a single source of truth on the number of buildings in NSW that might have used the same cladding as in the London fire, or in a 2014 fire at Melbourne’s Docklands precinct — or indeed on buildings using other non-compliant products that may pose safety risks,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Labor’s shadow minister for better regulation, Yasmin Catley, called the government response “a lazy approach” and asked what the government would be doing to make people feel safe in their dwellings. She believes local government is the best place to conduct an audit but said it must be properly resourced. Then a spokesperson for the City of Sydney was reported as saying that they were not aware of any buildings that have used any non-compliant cladding.

Can you spot the trend from this contradictory array of comments? The take-home message for the public has to be that nobody in a position of authority has a clue and that government and their agencies are, at best, guessing. And while these organisations are simply ‘guessing’, a worst case scenario can develop where relatively simple mistakes are given an opportunity to manifest into a potential tragedy.

Whilst the NSW Government has defended its actions by suggesting that councils become more aware of the risks of non-compliant claddings being used on high-rise buildings and to ‘support’ the National Construction Code with enforceable powers, the reality is that large scale deregulation of both the construction and the training sectors, in combination with our economic boom times, has evolved to allow the building construction and training industries to run significantly unchecked for well over a decade now.

Anyone intimately involved in building construction knows that quality standards on most building and construction works projects have been in steady decline, particularly within the residential apartment construction sector. An analysis of Sydney apartment buildings constructed since 2000 showed an increased level of the reporting of serious building defects by the owners. We retain a dysfunctional and uncoordinated approach to the regulatory control and licencing of our building design, construction and certification personnel which simply demonstrates both apathy and disunity across government.

The tragic outcome of the Grenfell Tower ‘defects’ are far worse than the multitude of general building defects plaguing the residential apartment sector. And they do seem to continually slip through the gaps on so many new construction and refurbishment projects being carried out.

People in industry are well aware of many more issues with a potential to impact on the safety of our multi-level apartments. One includes the celebrated example where newspapers were discovered stuffed around the floor slab core penetrations for the plumbing stack work instead of using embedded intumescent fire rated collars and fire rated sealants. Fire separation between 200 odd sole occupancy units was effectively replaced with a 40-storey internal chimney stack! Fortunately, the defect was remediated before any major incident occurred but not before the building was granted an Occupancy Certificate and residents had moved in.

There’s also been an extensive use of ‘External Insulation & Finish System’ (EIFS) claddings particularly for upper floor home extensions within the housing sector. Ostensibly, the expanded polystyrene sheet cladding is likely produced in the same factories making the insulation panels now in question. We certainly were made aware of the disastrous ‘leaky house’ syndrome from New Zealand where this method of construction failed spectacularly.

These are just a few examples of the continued mistakes that will slip through the gaps.

Every ‘defect’ has had someone design it, detail it and select the materials to be used for it. Someone has then constructed or assembled it, maybe in accordance with the documentation and then again, maybe not. Someone will have checked the work, accepted and approved it. All of these participants would have supposedly undertaken a course or courses of specific, formal training, been awarded an appropriate qualification and be registered by one authority or another as being capable of performing their respective roles in a highly professional and diligent manner. Our system relies entirely on using people who have actually received proper training and equipped with requisite skills and knowledge to perform their tasks appropriately. But we, as a nation, have been steadily moving away from these essential criteria.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the rapid rise of the many building and construction work related qualifications that are now being issued on the basis of a ‘recognition of prior learning.’

This absurdity must immediately be repealed for the purposes of any qualifications linked to accreditation and licencing of persons operating in the building construction sector. Any system that facilitates less training and less assessment of attained skills and knowledge will always be subject to the inevitable impaired consequences of those actions.

The reality is that in the modern world of building and construction, participants now must operate within far more complex and challenging work environments. This demands that practitioners be better trained and better qualified to design, construct, maintain and check buildings are appropriate for the health, safety and amenity of building occupants and users. That is the founding performance objective stated by the National Construction Code.

Without any other extenuating circumstances, it is ultimately the builder’s role to make certain the construction works being executed are fit for purpose. Inevitably, they must retain this responsibility. We can’t continue to allow our states and territories and hundreds of different local councils to partially and arbitrarily act as statutory authorities with various iterations of required standards and work licencing classes and work accreditation. This fragmented methodology, along with its use of some ‘mutual recognition’ systems as a placebo to state’s wishes is the exact opposite of creating rational uniformity.

Instead it creates an even greater risk due to the confusion as to what will be considered ‘equivalent’ in terms of licencing standards and training credentials. Remember the earlier reference to the aviation sector? We are collectively sitting on a time bomb in the building and construction sector with so many apparently ‘qualified’ and ’licensed’ incompetent persons that are operating independently to deliver substandard works for their unsuspecting clients and building occupants.

If Australia possessed innovative and responsive leadership, it would choose to seek to learn much more from this tragic situation other than ‘how many buildings do we guess might have used this cladding?’

There is now a clear objective to adopt uniform legislation based on high quality standards which will realistically address all appropriate levels of training, work licencing classes and professional accreditations to fully encapsulate the working roles and accountabilities within the Australian building and construction sector. A holistic approach to a national licencing and accreditation scheme is the missing link to achieving consistent and acceptable building and construction outcomes as described by our National Construction Code. This would do far more good than piecemeal attempts by multiple state, territory and local government regulators to try to make sure our buildings will be appropriate for the health, safety and amenity of all building occupants and users.

Alternatively, we may do nothing and potentially wait for our own Grenfell before we hear calls from politicians to hold another inquiry.