Flammable cladding – it’s time apartment owners flared up

Flammable cladding – it’s time apartment owners flared up

Grenfell Tower

If I were one of the apartment owners in New South Wales who are currently being told to brace for the expense of replacing non-compliant and combustible cladding in their apartment block, I would be close to combusting myself.

“For every 10 apartment blocks in Australia with aluminium cladding, around eight face the risk that they’re covered in the highly combustible materials that caused the Grenfell fire in London which cost more than 80 lives,” says one of the country’s top building defects specialists.

As apartment owners in NSW are being urged by the state government to conduct urgent investigations into the make-up of their own buildings, Australia stands on the cusp of a crisis on a par with the asbestos disaster of the 1980s, experts warn.” writes Sue Williams in Domain.com.au

It’s an unfortunate quote from Fire safety engineer Allan Harriman ‘Asbestos was big in the 1980s, but maybe cladding is the asbestos of 2017.’ Umm… well I know what he means but if ever there was something that was completely non combustible it’s asbestos so no, cladding is not the asbestos of 2017. What Mr Harriman is getting at is that the risk and removal of cladding could be as common and expensive as asbestos removal turned out to be.

Asbestos though was regarded as, and in fire terms was, a safe material and complied with regulations at the time. Combustible cladding did not comply at the time that it was installed. There were standards which were ignored somewhere down the chain that allowed buildings to be certified safe for occupation when they weren’t. We’re talking about aluminium cladding with a PE (polyethylene) core as featured on ABC’s Four Corners.

Now everyone from developers to fire safety experts are lining up to handball the problem in someone else’s direction and hoping it sticks in the hands of body corporates to pay for a problem that a whole raft of people withheld from them.

Who should be footing the bill? So many to blame, so many class actions waiting to be filed.

First up, the local council. All developments have to pass planning approvals. The plans and specifications would have to include notes about compliance that the principal certifier would insist on and inspect. So the architect and builder would know what has to be done. This used to be done by council building surveyors before privatisation became the new black.

Here’s where it gets problematical, particularly with the laws in NSW due to the principal certifier no longer necessarily being the local council. Private certifiers can also be appointed as the principal certifier by the developer (owner) and issue all the necessary notices including the occupation certificate at the end.

I’m not saying private certifiers are any better or worse than often overloaded and underpaid council building surveyors. To be able to sign off,  they inspect various stages of the project and rely on others to provide certification that their product complies, be it the standard of glass used, proof of purpose of one hour fire doors and closers or that the cladding isn’t going to burst into flames and kill people. Reputable suppliers will do this and have testing facilities so they can prove it.

Ultimately though, the owner (developer), yes, the person footing the bill for the builder and the certifier has to apply for the occupation certificate. It is at this stage that compliance has to be locked and signed off as all present and correct. Certificates and indemnities must be provided. In the pre- private days, the council would not let you occupy until every i was dotted and every t crossed.

A sub contractor may have sourced the wall panels from somewhere other than stated so the responsibility passes up the chain. The builder should pick it up and ensure that its not combustible. The certifier should insist the builder prove it. The owner should insist the certifier verify it. The Queensland government is working towards legislation making everyone in the chain share the responsibility and the blame.

There are limitations on how long you have to claim against a building defect, which is prudent. Is combustible cladding a defect though? Is it not in fact, something which has been installed illegally as it does not meet regulations? Why should there be any restriction on how long the ultimate apartment owners have to sue, given they  have every right to think that the above people had done their job properly, given that an occupation certificate had been issued.

Sorry, but for mine, it remains the original owner, the developer’s responsibility, and they can pursue recompense from the principal certifier, be it an independent company or council. What is a total injustice is apartment owners who were kept in the dark being issued with compliance orders for something they surely have every right to assume was non combustible, safe and installed to comply.

Sure as hell isn’t their fault. It’s over to the government.

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