According to the technology director of Kingspan Insulated Panels, Dr Mark Tatam, Australia could be heading for a Grenfell Tower-style disaster if its building auditing processes are left unchecked.
“While regulators, suppliers, designers and building stakeholders come to grips with the ramifications, at Kingspan we believe that the process to overcome the threat will need to be multi-faceted,” says Tatam.
A recent ABC Four Corners program reported that highly combustible cladding can be found on an “unquantifiable” number of Australian buildings, and identified numerous types of at-risk buildings including hospitals and high-rise apartments.
This threat was starkly illustrated in 2014 when Australia came very close to its own Grenfell Tower disaster when the Lacrosse apartment building in Melbourne’s Docklands quickly went up in flames due to its aluminium/polyethylene (PE) cladding.
While nobody was killed at the Lacrosse apartments and the fire was stopped before it could spread to the rest of the building, it was to many in the industry, a timely warning.
Tatam has identified five key recommendations that he thinks are needed to create a safer built environment, such as large-scale testing of all types of cladding systems, strengthening and regulate fire and installation detailing, mandatory training for installers, enforcement of fire-safety throughout design and construction, and more research into the impact of smoke from buildings and contents.
“In short, we need more rigorous building regulations, a wider and more robust testing regime, more independent checks and balances, and more training,” says Tatam.
“These five factors will go a long way to ensuring that we don’t see another Lacrosse or Grenfell,” he says.
Tatam's calls were earlier this year echoed by the CEO of Fire Safety Australia (FSA), Scott Williams, who went even further and has urged the federal government to consider setting up a national register of fire-rated building materials to help prevent a similar situation happening here.
What I’d like to see is a national register of complaint and non-compliant cladding – a bit like what we do with medicines and the PBS,” Williams said at the time.
Around the same time, Australian Steel Institute (ASI) CEO Tony Dixon called for an independent verification scheme for building products.
“While we recognise that it is extremely onerous to retro-check every component of a large building, there are practical ways of ensuring that building codes and regulations are honoured, such as independently assessed certification schemes for contractors or targeted assessment tools,” Dixon said.
For his part,Tatam also says that there is not enough focus on regulation in Australia when it comes to fire safety for public buildings.
“I suspect that Australia has been seen as an easy market for importers of combustible panels for some time. Many of the things being done now, including updating of the building code fire regulations, and tightening of the building control process, would discourage the imports of products that are being placed in the wrong applications,” he says.
At the same time, he does not want the importing of all combustible panels to stop.
“Other panels that are imported may not be intended for use in such demanding fire risk applications, and would be perfectly good in other applications.”
When talking about the future of building compliance auditing, Tatam remains upbeat.
“The auditing of buildings, I believe, is already expanding, with many associations and industry bodies and building owners already undertaking the work themselves to evaluate the buildings at risk under their purview,” he says.
“I think the real issue is the quality of the audits, as there are many factors at play, as seen in Lacrosse and Grenfell, besides just the cladding. Many factors can combine to create a ‘building at risk’, including the mobility of the residents, number of exit paths, etc.”
“How you would draw the line between a good building and a bad building is problematical. And for the bad buildings exactly what do you do to alleviate the fire risk issue? Correct identification of the materials used sometimes has been a problem, and we have already heard of materials being pulled off buildings for fire testing. These are the challenges faced by building auditors,” says Tatam.