Safety expert says the material blamed for London disaster is present in thousands of structures and could cost billions to replace.
A leading Australian fire safety engineer has compared the task of removing flammable aluminium cladding from high-rise buildings to ridding the country of asbestos, saying it could affect tens of thousands of buildings.
Stephen Kip, an adjunct professor at Victoria University, said aluminium composite cladding of the style implicated in the Grenfell Tower fire in west London was used in “thousands” of high-rise apartments and other buildings, despite only being approved for use in Australia for interior use or in low-rise buildings. The material was also blamed for the “near-miss” fire in the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands in 2014.
The majority of those buildings are clad in aluminium composite panels with a polyethylene core, which are highly flammable. Fire retardant and solid aluminium panels are available but are considerably more expensive.
“The manufacturers tell me that prior to 2011 the only product imported into Australia was the non-compliant [polyethylene] one, because no one ordered the compliant one,” Kip told Guardian Australia. “But we have been using it for 20 years.”
Kip said Australia needed to conduct a random sample audit to determine the scale of the problem then divide buildings into those which pose a serious threat to life and need to be shut down, and those which can be easily made safe.
“In a lot of ways it’s not dissimilar to the asbestos issue,” he said, referring to the hugely expensive and ongoing effort to dispose of the deadly material once widely used in the construction industry.
A Metropolitan Fire Brigade investigation into the Lacrosse building fire found it was “a near miss” that could easily have resulted in a number of fatalities.
But, despite that conclusion, there had been no significant changes to the regulatory and compliance systems, which Kip said were under-policed and allowed developers to make decisions based on price, rather than safety.
The cost of replacing the cladding for the Lacrosse building alone was estimated at $20m and the same cladding is found on “hundreds of buildings across the state”, the MFB said. Replacing cladding on thousands of buildings in Australia would potentially cost billions of dollars.
The investigation found the “rapid vertical spread” of the fire, which was sparked by a cigarette on an eighth-floor balcony and raced up 15 floors to reach the roof of the 23-storey building within 11 minutes, was “directly associated” with the polyethylene core aluminium cladding.
The investigation into the fatal Grenfell fire has just begun but criticism has already been directed at the aluminium cladding installed in 2016. In both fires, flames raced up the external walls at an alarming rate.
There were a few key differences: the Lacrosse building was fitted with internal sprinklers, unlike Grenfell, and they worked despite the scale of the blaze. Firefighters were able to alert the building’s 400 residents to evacuate before exits became inaccessible, preventing any fatalities.
But Kip said the difference in outcomes came down to luck. The tallest ladder operated by the MFB is 15 storeys and firefighters were only able to reach the top because the building was next to a seven-storey-high bridge, which also happened to have fire hydrants.
Similar fires in China and the United Arab Emirates were also dampened by sprinklers.
“All sorts of things went unbelievably well at Lacrosse,” he said. “The similarities between the Grenfell fire and the Lacosse fire are quite striking. It’s an almost identical product.”
In a submission to a Senate inquiry on non-compliant building materials in 2015, the MFB said the use of flammable cladding posed an “unqualified risk” and urged the Australian government to request an immediate national audit.
The MFB asked the government’s scientific research agency, CSIRO, to test a section of the Alucobest cladding used in Lacrosse. It failed the safety standards test, catching fire within 55 seconds.
“It’s poor compliance, which begs the question, what’s the point of having the regulations if they are not going to be obeyed?” said Nick Xenophon, who chaired the Senate inquiry. He supported calls for a national audit and independent testing of building projects used in Australia, saying an appropriate response to the Lacrosse fire was “long overdue”.
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“I don’t think it has been taken seriously enough,” he told Guardian Australia. “It seems as though a near miss should have been more than enough to prompt an emergency policy response at the state, federal, and local government levels.”
It did prompt some response in Victoria, with the Victorian Building Authority conducting an audit of 170 high-rise buildings and the Andrews government updating building codes to require sprinklers on balconies of building taller than 25 metres.
Mid-rise apartment buildings of three or four storeys are also often clad in flammable material, Kip said, and are not required to have a sprinkler system.
Some, including the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, argue the response has not been strong enough: 84 of the 170 buildings audited were found to be non-compliant with Australian building codes but were nevertheless deemed “safe”, and 40% of the high-rise buildings audited as part of an ongoing process instituted after the VBA handed down its 2016 report have also been found to be non-compliant.
“The issue here is to bring the buildings into compliance,” the VBA’s chief executive, Prue Digby, told reporters on Thursday.
Victoria’s planning minister, Richard Wynne, brushed off the risk of a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire occurring in Australia, saying its lack of sprinklers played a significant role and “this would not be possible in Melbourne or Australia because we have the strongest building codes of any first world country”.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from [the Lacrosse fire] and I want to reassure the public that a fire of the magnitude that we have seen in London would not happen here in Victoria,” he said.
Submissions to the Senate inquiry, and indeed the MFB itself, which has warned it may not send firefighters into buildings clad with non-compliant materials, say differently.
“Dramatic incidents such as the Lacrosse apartments fire in Melbourne involving non-conforming insulated cladding are only the tip of a very large ‘iceberg’ of issues that are prolific in the industry and it is obvious that more needs to be done,” a submission by Insulation Australasia said.
Snap Fire Systems, a Brisbane-based company that specialises in passive fire progression, told the inquiry the national construction code was “deficient and exposes lives and property to risk by allowing ‘experts’ employed by manufacturers to substitute opinions for actual independent tests.”
“A full test from an independent accredited laboratory is equally as permissible as an opinion from an ambiguously titled ‘other appropriately qualified person’,” it said. “This means that in some cases opinions are being used to approve products that have failed actual tests.”
Other submissions said the building code of Australia, which requires that products be “fit for purpose”, was open to interpretation. They also warned of potential battles about whose responsibility it was to replace non-compliant cladding, a scenario that is now playing out before the Victorian civil and administrative building tribunal with regard to the Lacrosse fire.
The City of Melbourne obtained a court order demanding the cladding be removed but the building’s owner is in a legal battle with the builder to determine who should pay to replace it.
All but 18 of its 285 apartments remain occupied.