It’s no secret that Australia has recently endured a cladding crisis - high profile fires like Neo 200 in Melbourne and Grenfell in London firmly turned the spotlight onto the 100% polyethylene core aluminium panels that adorn large numbers of high rise buildings in our cities. But now, years on from these shocking and - in some cases - tragic events, the crisis is far from over. Michael Teys and Craig Penton, from aluminium systems manufacturer Alspec, are experts on aluminium composite panels, with shared experience across the construction industry and academia.
Following the revelations that large numbers of buildings in Australia are still clad with potentially flammable aluminium composite panel, State Governments started taking stock of just how wide ranging the problem is. But the reporting system is flawed, something Michael elaborates on. “In major cities like Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne we’re seeing numbers between two and 400 buildings at high risk, but those figures are grossly understated. And the reason why they grossly understated is twofold. First, the states are setting their own thresholds in terms of what classifies as high risk, so we’re not comparing apples with apples. Second, many states are relying on self-reporting, which requires building owners to admit to problems that could cost them millions to fix - there’s not much incentive. In short, there’s a problem.”
With experts predicting cladding rectification works will total roughly $40 billion in Australia alone, Michael is certainly correct that things are not in great shape. But this problem didn’t just spring up overnight. In the first two decades of this century, three things happened that started us on this road,” says Michael. “The first is that in the late 90s, the State Governments introduced self regulation when it comes to building certification. Second, globalisation became a factor, so imports increased dramatically, meaning lots of cheaper product came in. And third, we had urbanisation - the biggest shift to high rise living that we've ever seen in our lifetime. And those three things all happened at once. So we had a lot of people wanting high rise apartments, we had cheap product coming in from overseas, and we had a lack of regulation. So the building industry was left to its own devices.”
Now, almost seven years after the Lacrosse fire was started by a single cigarette, the wheels of reparation are slowly turning. A sub-industry has sprung up to handle the influx of cladding rectification jobs across the country, and Governments are implementing legislative protections and avenues of redress for those affected so far. “Again, each state is approaching it differently,” says Craig. “But all the states who have brought in legislation have introduced some sort of retrospective element. For example, in NSW, if the property owners have been aggrieved by a choice product, then they can now sue the designer directly - which they couldn’t do before, and they can go back 10 years. So there's certainly been a legislative response that amounts to trying to turn back the hands of time, and make builders and designers liable for these things.”
So then, how can this mess be cleaned up? According to Craig, even some of the rectification works are being completed with non-compliant panels. So it’s up to the industry to come together around collective safety and ensuring that products are fit for purpose and fully compliant - something Alspec is committed to. “It’s about having the resources and skills within your organisation to make sure you’re meeting the code and working together with engineers and certifiers to really put a final stake in the ground that the quality of the material and the systems that are being used on these rectification jobs are correct.”
Alspec are doing their part by ensuring that all of their materials are fully compliant and making sure that as a business they’re on the right side of the line. “I think that's something that all businesses in this area will have to do,” says Michael. “They need to have a look at what they’re doing and make a choice to either be part of the problem, or to make some changes and be part of the solution.”
This article is a short summary of the Talking Architecture & Design Podcast episode 67. Listen to the full Podcast Episode with Michael Teys & Craig Penton here.