Lower compliance costs for cladding

Lower compliance costs for cladding
Tom Bacon

If you know where to look (and who to look to) there are potential options for much lower compliance costs to rectify combustible cladding.

The state of Victoria has the most buildings with combustible cladding, as the latest state audit figures show. The Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported last week that Victoria has 1610 privately owned buildings with ACP or aluminium composite panels.

The government has a target to rectify the facades of the most urgent buildings, starting with a list of 50 buildings to complete before the end of 2023. Unfortunately, the majority of those 1600 buildings will have to be rectified at the owners’ cost as the government’s $300 million fund will not stretch far enough to compensate for all of the buildings.

However, full cladding removal is not necessary in all buildings, as the location of the panels and the installation of non-combustible concrete materials separating the combustible cladding from the rest of the façade can actually be considered an acceptable alternative solution under the Building Code of Australia.

The process involves a fire engineer and building surveyor to agree on an alternative solution, and then an application can be lodged with the Building Appeals Board to have the Municipal Building Surveyor (Council) and Fire Rescue Victoria sign off on the alternative solution.

Owners’ corporations (OCs) that have been issued with an order or notice from the council should engage a lawyer and fire engineer early in the process.

An example reported in the AFR shows that a simple 30-minute test conducted three times on 100 per cent polyethylene core panels taken from the building and separated by a metre-tall concrete slab representing the protruding panel separating the combustible panels and glazing, showed fire did not spread upwards.

The test showed fire was unlikely to jump between facade panels on a 24-storey Melbourne apartment tower, because a one-metre-wide concrete layer separating the panels was sufficient to prevent the upwards spread of flame.

The test results showed that a Melbourne high-rise could stay safely be inhabitable with around $40,000 worth of work instead of a $4 million replacement of all combustible panels.

“We need to have confidence that it’s safe to leave the cladding on,” the managing director of consultancy Basic Expert Mr Jonathan Barnett said, who spoke to the AFR’s Michael Bleiby.

“What it proves is that for many buildings we probably could leave the panels on.”

Under that plan, the aluminium composite cladding would stay on the tower, with the exception of a first-floor section of 12 panels above a driveway that could be ignited by a vehicle fire. A new cover would also have to be built over the rear exit of the building to shelter exiting residents from falling debris if there was a fire.

The test, which cost around $100,000 to stage, shows a way to bring much-needed nuance into consideration about rectification of buildings with combustible panels. Globally, little work has been done to conduct real-life tests of fire spread, as the burden of paying for them falls to the resident owners of the buildings.

But if enough tests were done on a wide enough pool of buildings, a database could be built up to inform policymakers and regulators about the best – and most affordable – remedy for residents, many of whom struggle to foot hefty cladding bills, Mr Barnett said.

“Until we have more information about how these panels burn, we’re going to have to do more tests,” he said.

“That catalogue of knowledge doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.” •

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