Burning buildings: Cladding - what you need to know
The Grenfell Tower disaster in London this year, killing an estimated 80 people, brought to worldwide attention the use of potentially combustible materials in building cladding.
The disaster caused the Australian government to include cladding in its Senate Inquiry into non-conforming building products. An interim report was recently released on 6 September 2017 (Interim Report), with the final report due on 30 April 2018.
What is cladding?
Cladding is the external finishing material used on a building framework. Its purpose is to weatherproof and protect the underlying building structure and interior, as well as provide a decorative finish. Common materials used for cladding include timber, vinyl, foam, concrete, cement based panels, brick, stone and aluminium composite panels (ACPs).
In recent years, the use of ACPs for cladding has seen an increase in popularity with the materials being relatively cheap, light weight, visually decorative and easy to install.
What is the problem using ACPs?
An ACP is a bonded laminated material consisting of multiple component layers bonded together under pressure. Concerns have been raised specifically regarding ACPs with a polyethylene (PE) core layer as tests have shown PE is combustible and can contribute to the rapid spread of fire at devastating speed. ACPs should satisfy the test requirements of Australian Standard AS 1530. However, the issue is the core of ACPs, where the layered components are not accurately tested to identify non-compliant building materials.
ACPs with a PE core continue to be imported, sold and used in Australia. This poses health and safety, legal, economic and social risks because of the PE used in such cladding.
Latest Government Response
To address concerns with ACPs with PE cores, the Interim Report recommended the following:
▪ A total ban on importation of ACPs with a PE core.
▪ Penalties for non-compliance with National Construction Code.
▪ Australian Standards to be made freely available.
A national licensing scheme, with continued professional development, for building practitioners.
▪ National measures to increase accountability in supply chains.
▪ A national statutory duty of care protection for end users in
the residential strata sector.
Led by Senator Nick Xenophon, the Customs Amendment (Safer Cladding) Bill 2017 is currently before Parliament aiming to effectively ban the importation of ACPs with PE cores in the interest of public safety.
Additionally, in NSW a Fire Safety and External Wall Cladding Taskforce (Taskforce) has been established to audit buildings likely to contain non-compliant cladding. The Taskforce is identifying buildings that require urgent and immediate action, requiring the assessment of the cladding by a fire protection expert.
Where to from here?
A remediation and risk management plan and review of existing cladding materials used in buildings should be implemented, focusing on safety. From a legal perspective, identifying the responsible party in the event of a dispute due to the use of non-compliant and/or non-conforming cladding is not clear cut.
A blame game, with fingers pointing in each direction, will no doubt create a complex legal matrix.
With the prospect of a total ban on imports of ACPs with PE cores, developers, architects, engineers, certifiers and contractors at all levels should carefully consider the specification of compliant cladding materials, to limit the public safety risks and associated claims for cladding replacement, or in a worst-case scenario, claims for property damage, death and personal injury.