Have We Learned Anything from the Docklands Fire? 6

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016
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It’s time to look back at the Lacrosse fire in Docklands in November 2014 and the investigation being undertaken by the Victorian Building Authority (VBA), which they announced in April 2015.

It has been established by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) that the fire spread due to non-compliant cladding, a fact which the VBA supports, and their ongoing investigation is based on this knowledge.

At this time, the VBA has yet to complete their investigation but has identified that some 171 building permits will be audited. To date, only 72 have been audited.

The reason we raise this matter again is because of the Dubai hotel fire last New Year’s Eve. It was the second skyscraper hotel fire in Dubai in 2015, the first occurring when the building known as the Torch went up in flames in minutes in the same manner as the Lacrosse Building in Docklands. It is more than reasonable to suggest external cladding may have been the catalyst for these fires considering the speed with which they spread.

In 2012, the Tamweel tower located in Dubia’s JLT area was the victim of a fire that spread through the aluminum cladding affixed to the tower’s sides. In this case, a large portion of the structure’s roof was damaged.

The Tamweel fire was started by a cigarette butt, apparently in the same manner as the Lacrosse building in Docklands, and years later this building is still unoccupied.

We cannot sit back and hope another building with flammable cladding doesn’t catch fire, because we may not be so lucky next time and many lives could be lost.

At this point in time, there has been no outcome from the VBA in terms of who is at fault or if fault can be applied regarding the questionable cladding. Nothing has been determined regarding whose responsibility it is to remedy the situation and/or if some entity or entities could be held to account.

The cladding panels apparently contain a potentially dangerous mix of aluminum and polyurethane. The flammable material is sandwiched between layers of aluminum, and when exposed to flame or even extreme heat, it will ignite. In some cases, the panels are fixed to a stand-off grid that allows the flames access to both sides of the panels, exacerbating the situation.

This is where the boundaries are hazy to say the least.

In an astonishing turn of events, councils have been given the task of notifying and issuing rectification orders to the owners to make good their buildings and bring them into compliance.

This has been the case in regard to the Lacrosse building, as Melbourne City Council has issued rectification orders to some 350-plus apartment owners.

Port Phillip Council has issued rectification orders to all owners of an apartment building in Southbank, and Nilumbik Council will issue rectification orders to all owners of the Rangeview Estate at the direction of the VBA.

How in all fairness can the innocent purchasing owners of apartments be held liable for works they had absolutely nothing to do with, as most purchased off the plan and only finalized their contract when the building was completed and they were provided with all valid certificates of compliance, including an occupancy certificate?

Secondly, how can owners be expected to understand and manage such extreme building processes that will run into tens of millions of dollars?

And thirdly – and most importantly – how can such a serious issue be by passed by the VBA and handed to innocent owners on a platter?

The domestic building industry over the past 13 years has paid many hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver the mandatory consumer protection that “CHOICE” refers to as junk policies, making a mockery of consumer protection.

The commercial high-rise builder sidestepped the mandatory consumer protection regime adopted in 2002 and they contribute nothing to consumer protection. Meanwhile, some 85 per cent of all apartments in NSW contain defects, as established by a federally-funded review undertaken by the University of New South Wales in 2012.

These facts paint a sorry canvas for the building industry as a whole, and even though our industry pays hundreds of millions for consumer protection and industry management, we fail at every turn and find our millions are wasted as we witness failure followed by confusion with every serious event.

Given the circumstances that these issues collectively represent, we can be assured the outcome regarding the Lacrosse building is only in its infancy. That the authorities have now considered the building fit to occupy without any rectification works appears most unusual to say the least.

There is an astronomical risk associated with all the recent decisions, but what is beyond belief are the facts surrounding the cladding issue. Over a year later, we languish without findings, without accountability and with buildings still at risk of fire, and yet again cladding is at the forefront of news with the Dubai New Years Eve fire this year.

While here in Victoria, it appears the VBA has targeted some 15 buildings that are at risk in their ongoing audit through the use of inappropriate external cladding, now some of the biggest builders have challenged those findings, which will further prolong any outcome.

Even the issues in the domestic area surrounding the Range View Estate in Diamond Creek, where non-compliance is rampant and the estate has been languishing for years, could be very serious. Among a myriad of issues, the fire separation walls have been found to be defective and the home owners are horrified at the extent of the defects. It now appears this matter has been directed to the Nilumbik Council to manage the rectification and compliance issues.

Who will stand up and be counted if we are faced with a tragedy? Potentially we could be at the peril of a bushfire around Diamond Valley or worse – as the overseas experiences continue to demonstrate, high-rise buildings continue to erupt in flames due to faulty cladding.

We can and must do better!

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  1. Paul Thomas

    I don't think anyone could seriously argue with your last comment, Phil. Absolutely, we can and must do better.

    Also, the idea that owners should be held responsible for failures which occurred through no fault of their own. In any industry of any credibility, the supplier takes responsibility for defective product and takes the financial hit when goods aren't up to scratch. The idea that when people make the biggest purchase of their lives that should not apply and that they themselves should be held responsible is ludicrous.

  2. Perry Stork

    This is just the tip of the iceberg Phil.
    The cladding fiasco is just one element that will cause grief in the future due to the underlying lack of regulatory governance and a long standing culture where conflict of interest is treated as a joke.
    The regulators must ultimately be responsible. Building Surveyors should not have the power to approve variables to the Building Code & Standards, aka "alternative solutions".
    The Act, Codes and Standards need to be set and regulated by a State or National Building Authority, not a private "police" force who's income is dependant on the people they are supposed to be policing…….
    Building surveyors are struggling to cope with the basics of mandatory inspections while being expected to carry increasing regulatory compliance "risks" such as the "6 Star" Energy Rating compliance to be burdened further with such critical and misplaced authority.

  3. Les Williams

    Clearly authorities are dodging any financial responsibility for this debacle. [1] is the cladding the only non conforming product used in construction of our buildings? — maybe we should look at the structural steel, glass, aluminium doors, electrical wiring etc. [2] are state based regulators the appropriate authorities to be investigating as they have presided over the industry during this 10 year period [3] Maybe it is time somebody investigated the role played by the regulators particularly any associations the regulators may have with peak industry associations. In QLD the QBCC is listed as a sponsor of a major industry association and the commissioner a proud member of that association. [3] How do these allegedly non conforming building products become certified? I would urge "sourceable" to stay with this story.

    • Roy Barrett

      I have yet to see any comment from the Institute of Architects with respect to this issue. Do their designs 'specify' the use of such material?. If they do, surely they would have a responsibility to ensure it met the required standards. If they don't specify it, who is the party responsible?. If there is no specific party 'responsible' for such a product being available to be used on a building, that must indicate an 'open door' to a host of potentially inferior building materials being used without any adequate regulatory oversight or compliance certification. That any responsible authority could suggest that the unit purchasers are responsible for rectification is nothing short of outrageous.

  4. Bruce Christopher

    There is a significant amount of non-compliant steel, coatings, windows and frames, electrical wiring etc., as well as this cladding issue, and it has been going on for some time now. No doubt most failures are kept under wraps or have not caused significant harm (by chance) so I expect we are only at the beginning of finding out the down sides to poor supply chain and compliance management and commercial factors trumping technical factors.

  5. Karen Silkwood

    Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP's) are a distraction to the overall debate regarding compliance. Most are fit for purpose and suitable for high-rise construction, if installed correctly and considered holistically as an Alternative Solution. But a polyethylene core ACP is not (especially if fixed with tape like Lacrosse) and is causing major fires, and some deaths, around the world. Surely no-one agrees a 23 storey building should have the cladding fixed with double sided tape? I know of no reputable manufacturer that will support or guarantee durability or strength at elevated heights with tape. The panels are likely to blow or fall off before they burn.

    The first step to solving a problem is recognising there is a problem. Until the regulator understands this and enforces compliance, we will not move forward as an industry and regain the respect of the community.