Planning Minister Richard Wynne and VBA CEO Prue Digby must be very concerned with their stated positions that the Lacrosse Building in Docklands that burnt in November 2014 is safe to occupy after Dubai's sadly aptly-named Torch Tower caught fire for the second time in two years.
Aluminium composite panels
Both state and federal governments are currently grappling with the aluminium composite panel (ACP) issue as they discover that tens of thousands of buildings in Australia may have the ACP products on their building fabrics.
We are yet to understand the enormity of this issue as it unravels and who might be responsible in terms of safety and of course financially as to may eventually pay.
There is potential for fire to spread very quickly upward in a building if inappropriate products are used, such as in the Lacrosse building. These panels are fitted on a frame that stands off the building some 50 to 100 millimetres and the panels themselves consist of two aluminium faces and a core material that bonds them together such as polyethylene – a highly inflammable product. The installation acts as a chimney, and accordingly, both sides of the panel burn ferociously.
There are many manufacturers of these panels, which are between three and five millimetres thick, and while the pnaels all look much the same, not all are compliant and the core materials are where the problem lays.
Determining what is compliant and what is non-compliant will be a vast task.
Adding to the building woes of the cladding is the extensive use of polystyrene as an exterior cladding which is fixed on a timber frame on buildings with some as high as nine storeys. This creates a twofold situation: fire risk and issues with water ingress.
A nine-level building in Brunswick suffered a fire last March where the polystyrene just simply melted and left the skeleton timber frame that still languishes today. Worse, it appears the exposed frame may not meet the standards set out in the Building Code of Australia.
This form of cladding system sees sheets of 75-millimetre foam cut to size and then screwed to the wooden frame with the joints glued and then rendered with acrylic render which from a distance could be construed as brick, cement blocks or tilt slabs.
This same polystyrene product is used in the formation of waffle pod slabs, and Victoria has suffered from slab heave where thousands of home owners face an uncertain financial future due to the use of ”waffle slab” foundations and poor classification of highly reactive volcanic clay soils. Waffle slabs ”float” on top of compacted ground and are cheaper and quicker to build than traditional footings.
The VBA has undertaken an inquiry to establish if water ingress is a systemic problem in our industry and it is understood the findings will be handed down shortly. In the meantime, it appears the failure of the slab heave, the ingress of water to apartments everywhere not to mention the failure of balconies and shower bases suggests and confirms it is a systemic problem that should have been addressed a long time ago.
Some apartments are so effected by water ingress that they have become uninhabitable and owners have moved out. Those homes languish while matters proceed very slowly before VCAT. The tribunal is the only jurisdiction where a consumer or builder can take a building matter, and self representation is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the costs of litigation have become horrific and out of reach for most people as the legal fraternity have certainly captured the tribunals.
Compliance with building permits was undertaken by the Victorian Auditor General in 2011 and a staggering 96 per cent of all permits were found to be non compliant.
Governing the Compact City
Governing the Compact City is a comprehensive University of NSW survey funded by the federal government that examines strata title properties. The survey shows newer apartments are the worst, with 85 per cent of owners surveyed in buildings constructed since 2000 reporting defects. In three out of four cases, these were yet to be fixed.
In most of these cases, the builder or developer controlling the strata scheme and was slow to act, or the builder was no longer operating and so could not fix the defects.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the content of the survey and found researchers surveyed 1,550 strata owners, managers and peak bodies. Seven out of 10 owners reported building defects in their properties, with water leaks and internal and external cracks the most common.
There is no question the quality of buildings has deteriorated over the past 10 to 15 years and more dramatically over the past 10 years, and it’s not confined to one jurisdiction.
Buildings above three levels don’t have any consumer protection whatsoever and haven’t since the introduction of Builders Warranty Insurance (BWI) in July 2002. BWI makes a mockery of government’s policy of consumer protection in the building industry, and even though there was to be a statuary fund set up years ago for the purchasers of high-rise properties, powerful political pressures nixed that concept.
The NSW Government under pressure committed to a defect bond system in 2015 but they just keep delaying it.
The scheme, whereby developers would have to put aside two per cent of the cost of a new building to be used to rectify any faults for owners, was meant to be brought into law in July of last year. It was deferred until this July and now postponed again – without any official public announcement – to January 1, 2018.
This scheme would no doubt be akin to the BWI scheme that has been nothing but a disaster since inception.
A complete rethink of consumer protection in the building industry needs to take place, and this time it must be done in conjunction with the genuine industry.
Construction is now the biggest industry in the nation and its future requires very careful consideration on a national basis. The status quo must come to a full stop as the states have lost their way to the direct detriment of our industry.
The failure is a national issue, and the blame can be squarely placed at the feet of both state and federal governments, as all have been directed and driven by the greed of developers supported and abetted by the trade associations who see the management of our industry and its legislation as theirs to create significant income streams utilising mandatory legislation.
Expertise from the grassroots of the building industry has been put forward time and time again, and then dismissed, and marginalised by the bureaucracies.
Expertise in the building industry is paramount to establish a regulatory framework.