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    Flammable cladding – how much did Australian suppliers know and for how long?

    Branko Miletic

    According to a recent audit of potentially flammable building cladding, over 1,000 buildings in NSW require further investigation to ensure that we do not see a repeat of the Grenfell Tower disaster that befell the UK recently.

    However, these 1000-plus buildings did not sprout up overnight, with reports now coming out that as far back as almost two decades ago, some in the local building industry were aware that they were supplying a composite aluminium cladding product that had a polyethylene (PE) core that was potentially highly flammable.

    All this even though a fire-resistant variety of cladding was available.

    The situation in Victoria is even more dire, with some fire experts saying there could be over 5,000 buildings across that state that contain potentially flammable cladding.

    According to an ABC Four Corners special investigation, some suppliers claim that "hundreds of thousands of square metres" of cladding was used before 2000.

    And while fire-resistant cladding was available, the cheaper PE core cladding continued to be installed on medium and high-rise buildings in Australia all the way up until 2013.

    The Four Corners investigation revealed that some international manufacturers and their Australian suppliers were aware of the risks associated with using PE cladding on high-rise buildings, but they continued to import it because Australia had neither the will nor the capacity to enforce a range of what they termed as “ambiguous building standards”.

    Now, with a nation-wide building boom in full swing, the spectre of thousands of structures wrapped in highly-flammable PE cladding is beginning to emerge while home owners who are living in potentially unsafe apartment buildings possibly face multimillion-dollar repair.

    While these panels – that also go by their proper name of Aluminium Composite Materials (ACM) started to be be imported in the late 1970s mainly for use in signage, they quickly became popular with architects because of their light weight and more ‘modern’ look, with buildings such as Jackson's Landing in Sydney, and apartment blocks across Melbourne all featuring this PE core cladding.

    However, even prior to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, at least one Australian supplier began swapping them with a more fire-resistant variety, after the Japanese manufacturer showed them fire tests comparing fire resistant and PE cladding.

    Even though these panels were effectively banned on multi-storey buildings, that did not stop them from being used on such structures.

    The results of this were all too visible in 2014, when a cigarette left burning on a balcony sparked a major fire at Melbourne's Lacrosse building, that prompted Melbourne's Metropolitan Fire Brigade, to publicly note they had “never seen anything like it” in their 125-year history.

    Other buildings potentially at risk in Melbourne include The Royal Women's Hospital and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre which were found to have non-compliant cladding installed back in 2016.

    Building specification standards body NATSPEC CEO Richard Choy, says that for many years now, a range of construction materials have been used across Australia with inadequate or false evidence of conformity to the applicable standards. 

    “From 2006 to 2012 there were increasing reports of non-conforming products entering Australia including structural steel bolts, structural plywood products, copper pipe tubing, fire collars and glass sheets.  In recent years, there have been significant issues with electrical cable, combustible cladding used inappropriately, products with asbestos, and glass failures,” says Choy.

    Due to the recent Grenfell Tower fire in which 80 people perished, aluminium cladding is now the focus of a number of government and industry audits across the nation, however the question that needs to be asked is how long did Australian building product distributors know about this problem, and why did they not do anything to fix it much earlier?

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