After the Lacrosse apartment tower fires in 2014, the Owners Corporation of the Aurora Apartments (pictured above) in the City of Melbourne had samples taken from the paneling system on their building’s façade tested for analysis.
When results came back, they learned that the material was expanded polystyrene – one of two material types which has been used on facades throughout multi-storey buildings in Melbourne but has subsequently been banned in Victoria and in several other states on the basis of being combustible.
Initially, the insurer did not seem worried. After the Grenfell Tower fire in London, however, the Owners Corporation received notice that their annual premium would jump from $45,000 to $225,000.
Whilst this was concerning, the case is now a success story as this was the first recladding project to be approved under the Victorian Government’s cladding rectification program. The product selected for recladding was the Kingspan Evolution Axis 50mm wall panel by international building envelop and insulation solutions provider Kingspan Insulated Panels.
This case highlights an example of how a successful cladding rectification project should be approached.
To explore this, Sourceable spoke with Des O’Shea, chair of the Owners Corporation cladding subcommittee at Aurora and Niall Horgan, Commercial Director BENCHMARK, Roof & Wall Panels at Kingspan Insulated Panels Australia.
According to Horgan, problems with flammable cladding occur in two common product types:
- Aluminium composite panels (ACPs) with a high content of polyethylene (PE) in their core
- Insulated panels with an expanded polystyrene (EPS) core material.
With each product, the problem relates to the material in the core.
With ACPs, the polyethylene is extremely flammable and can contribute to the spread of fire up the building’s façade. This type of product has been at the centre of many high-profile apartment fires around the world.
Not all ACPs are flammable. Instead, problems centre on panels with a high content of polyethylene in their core.
With EPS, meanwhile, the polystyrene in the insulating material is a thermoplastic material which melts and spreads rapidly under a flame source.
In several states across Australia, EPS is now banned for use in multi-storey buildings as are ACPs where their polyethylene core exceeds 30 percent.
After discovery of flammable cladding, Horgan says owners corporations should take several actions.
First, insurers should be notified and made aware of the type of product which is on the building.
Next, fire safety engineers should be consulted to advise on the extent of fire safety risk which is present along with suitable options for rectification.
These options may include a full or partial replacement of the cladding. The most suitable alternative will depend upon where the flammable panels are positioned on the building along with fire performance of the overall wall system and the risk of a flame source.
On specific products, Horgan says options for metal façade replacement fall into three types.
- ACPs with a fire-resistant core material
- Solid aluminium
- Sandwich panels with a fire-resistant core material.
With regard to ACPs, Horgan says these may be fire safe depending on the content of the insulating core.
Solid aluminium is a product which has been commonly used for replacement of ACP due to aluminium being a non-combustible metal
Finally, sandwich panels are different from ACPS (generally a 4mm or 6mm product) and can be 50mm or more in thickness. Along with providing a fire barrier, these can provide an aesthetic barrier and offer thermal and weather protection.
Speaking of the product chosen at Aurora, Horgan says this is a 50mm evolution panel with a material known as Polyisocyanurate or PIR in the core. This, he says, offered fire performance which has been demonstrated through large scale testing of wall systems and has been recognised by the insurance sector for its performance in resisting the spread of fire. Compared with the material it replaced (EPS), meanwhile, the new product offered around twice the thermal performance.
Speaking of his experience at Aurora, O’Shea says the Owners Corporation first established a subcommittee to examine options for compliance and their impact on insurance premiums.
That subcommittee undertook discussion with insurers, fire engineers and apartment owners – the latter group of which was kept in the loop through written correspondence and face-to-face meetings throughout the project.
In some cases, options considered offered only limited reductions in premiums as the insurer did not view these as addressing underlying concerns. Placement of sprinklers on balconies was one such option.
Eventually, a decision was made to replace the panels.
When selecting the replacement product, O’Shea says the sub-committee looked for several features. As well as being non-flammable (and being approved by the insurer as being such), this included being cost effective; aesthetically pleasing; delivering good performance on issues such as wind, acoustics and insulation; be proven to perform on high-rise buildings; being supplied by a reputable manufacturer and having equivalent dimensions to the existing product. The last point was important to ensure a proper fit where the panels butted up against the windows.
Once all this was considered, O’Shea said the Kingspan product was the only one that met all criteria.
An additional consideration in favour of Kingspan was the company’s insistence that its product be installed only by accredited installers. As part of the deal, there were frequent site visits from Kingspan’s quality control representative, who also regularly corresponded with the representative who coordinated quality control from the Aurora end.
Asked about project challenges, O’Shea says the process was time consuming amid a need to obtain numerous reports and to consult with many parties.
There was also some inconvenience for residents whilst the recladding was in progress. On this score, however, O’Shea praises the efforts of Australian Façade Solutions (the installer for the project) in minimising disruption.
Asked about lessons which could be applied by other owners corporations, O’Shea recommends several strategies.
First, the problem should be addressed head on and not put off or ignored.
Constant liaison with insures is critical to ensure that the solution adopted satisfies the insurer’s requirements.
Whilst engagement of consultants such as fire engineers is necessary, decisions should not be left entirely to these people. Instead, committee/subcommittee members should be prepared to ask questions and be involved in ongoing operations and decisions.
Once the product has been selected, experienced installers should be chosen to perform the installation correctly. Those merely in it for a bit of money should be avoided.
Finally, constant communication with owners is critical.
Owners, O’Shea says, must be kept informed of what is going on and should not be subjected to surprises.
Niall broadly agrees.
“I think it’s about working towards the solution that works in terms of minimum disruption to the building whilst also being a practical solution which makes the building fire safe and is something which the fire safety engineer is happy with, the certifier is happy with, the insurer is happy with and in Melbourne the Building Appeals Board and the fire services are happy with,” he said.
“Essentially, you are thinking about what is the most practical solution and to get approval from all parties and ensure that you have the right outcome which will reduce your insurance premium and make the building fire safe whilst also potentially having other benefits such as increased thermal performance.”