Is flammable cladding such a big deal after all?


A sight soon to disappear in San Francisco ... unless that's wacky-baccy

The NSW state government has sent out the first 800 letters to apartment buildings to find out which of them has dangerous inflammable cladding.  What happens if you say yes?  are we facing huge bills to remove and replace? We reckon behaviour is just as important as building specifications when it comes to fires

The Torch building in Dubai went up in flames again the other week – the second fire there in just over two years. A couple of days before, there was a fire on the upper floors of the nearby Tiger Tower.

The 86-storey Torch – the fifth highest residential building in the world – has flammable cladding, of course.  Closer to home, the Lacrosse building in Melbourne suffered a similar fire about 18 months ago, spread by the same materials.

And of course, the Grenfell tragedy in London, where 80 people perished in the blaze, was the most vivid example of how badly things could go wrong.

Now individual owners of units in thousands of buildings in Australia are potentially facing bills of thousands of dollars each to remove and replace dangerous inflammable cladding.

The second Torch fire came just days after NSW Better Regulation Minister Matt Kean announced a cladding Task Force which will compel apartment building owners to declare whether or not they have dangerous cladding.

Strata law requires owners to maintain and repair common property, and that may well mean they have to remove and replace the material at their own expense.

Apartment owners thinking they might recoup the costs from building professionals could be out of luck. According to a story in the AFR this week, many professional indemnity insurers are excluding cover for certifiers who approved inflammable cladding.

But are you really living in mortal danger if your newish building has cheap cladding on its outside?

The three Dubai fires and the Lacrosse blaze resulted in a total of zero casualties. None. OK, several apartments were badly damaged and some residents were seriously scared – but that was it.

The Grenfell was different. It had no sprinklers, restricted access to fire stairs and had a non-evacuation policy that told residents it would be safer to stay in their flats than try to escape a fire.

Also, the Grenfell was a bodgy makeover of an old building. The Torch, the Tiger and the Lacrosse are modern buildings with functioning internal fire-fighting systems.

In any case, there’s a compelling argument that it’s our behaviour rather than just building materials that’s the problem. The first Torch fire was started by a barbecue on a balcony, and the Tiger and Lacrosse fires by carelessly discarded cigarettes.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has already flagged the possibility that increased safety measures may be all that’s required and cladding replacement is just one option.

So perhaps owners in a building with cheap cladding on the outside, should consider aggressively banning smoking and barbecues on their balconies, as well as the storage of anything might fuel a fire.

Also, check your sprinkler systems and make sure your smoke alarms are all functioning, your fire doors are closed and your fire stairs are clear.

But if you own in a high fire risk building that turns a blind eye to bad behaviour, overcrowding and slack fire safety measures, don’t be surprised if you are hit with a massive bill for a cladding cure.

This column appeared in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday August 12. 

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