Cladding time-bomb in the spotlight

An investigation by the ABC’s Four Corners has revealed the extent of the problems being faced by Australian governments and councils, with large numbers of residential buildings, hospitals, shopping centres and commercial buildings having been built with flammable aluminium cladding, posing a potentially serious fire risk.

The 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's lax and ambiguous building standards allowed it.

Australia - in the grip of a once-in-a-generation building boom - now has a large legacy of buildings swathed in the potentially deadly material.

The number of affected properties is unknown but could be in the thousands, with a preliminary audit in NSW alone identifying 1,011 buildings that require investigation.

Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, for example, has failed a second round of testing on its cladding and the cladding will now be removed and replaced – a costly process expected to take around 18 months. 40 government-owned buildings in Queensland are also under investigation.

In Adelaide, the SAHMRI building, the New Royal Adelaide Hospital, the Adelaide Convention Centre and the Adelaide Oval are among 77 buildings identified as requiring further investigation.

Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia are currently undertaking audits of their large buildings.

NSW has established an inter-agency Fire Safety and External Wall Cladding Taskforce.

Queensland has also been undertaking an audit, and last month passed tough legislation that puts the onus on the entire supply chain to ensure conforming products are used in a compliant manner.

The Federal Senate Inquiry into Non-Compliant Building Products is also expected to report this week.

Meanwhile, The Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) has commissioned a review of building and construction safety issues in Australia, including the installation of non-compliant building products.

Federal Assistant Industry Minister and BMF chairman Craig Laundy said the review would be run by former senior public servant and now academic Peter Shergold and building and construction lawyer Bronwyn Weir.

“Australia’s National Construction Code is among the world’s best,” Mr Laundy said, “but we’ve go to work with state and territory regulators to focus on stamping out the non-compliant installation of building products”.

The Property Council of Australia responded to the Four Corners report with a call for better supply chain practices.

Chief executive Ken Morrison said all the major property companies were working together with government agencies to improve property standards and deal with non-conforming products.

“We are seeing concerted and considered action from the Building Ministers’ Forum, the Senior Officers’ Group on NCBPs, the Australian Building Codes Board, Standards Australia, as well as state governments and their relevant fire and consumer protection agencies,” Mr Morrison said.

Mr Morrison said public safety was the priority of both industry and regulators.

“Many industry participants aren’t just reviewing the buildings they own, they are also reviewing the buildings they played a role in constructing up to a decade ago.”

He said PCA members were reporting “very few instances of genuine safety risk”.

Master Builders Australia chief executive Denita Wawn said the challenge was to improve the “extensive and robust” regulatory regime that ensured the safe use of building products.

“This is fundamentally the responsibility of government, but requires a concerted effort from all those in the building and construction supply chain,” she said.

She said MBA had established a national taskforce to improve outcomes, and was calling for a centrally administered building product certification system.

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