Half of central Melbourne’s newest high-rises have been installed with flammable cladding, prompting a fresh audit of “hundreds” of buildings across Victoria and new investigations into building practitioners.
The state’s building regulator says it has discovered “an unacceptably high” level of non-compliance in its coercive audit of 170 large apartments, hotels, hospitals and aged-care homes.
Victorian Building Authority (VBA) chief executive, Prue Digby, said there was a “systemic issue” across the building industry with the correct installation of external cladding.
“We have a problem with what the people who are designing and constructing and signing off buildings know and understand about compliance. And that is the issue that has to be fixed.”
A near-catastrophic fire at the Lacrosse Building in Docklands sparked the initial VBA probe, after it was discovered combustible aluminium cladding fuelled the rapid spread of the blaze from the eighth floor to the top of the 23-storey tower.
The VBA launched an investigation into the building practitioners involved – and has now widened that probe to include those responsible for the construction of the Harvest Apartments in Southbank, which was subject to an emergency order after similar cladding was found on more than 50 per cent of its facade.
The VBA will also launch a further audit of construction projects linked to building surveyors, designers, builders and other practitioners whose work has been identified as problematic.
In December the Metropolitan Fire Brigade questioned the competency of the Victorian building regulator, in a report that strained relations between the two groups. “The MFB questions whether the VBA understands the extent or consequences of the problem [with fire safety breaches] or how to resolve it,” it said.
This week MFB chief officer Peter Rau said he was concerned that such a large proportion of the buildings inspected were non-compliant.
“This is a concerning indicator for both MFB and fire services in other states as to what could be on buildings throughout Australia. The matter revolves for us around firefighter and community safety and this figure is unacceptably high,” he said.
It is the VBA’s stated mission to regulate for a “quality built environment in Victoria”. Ms Digby said she did not believe the high rate of cladding non-compliance proved that the regulator had failed.
“I don’t accept that. This is a national issue, not a Victorian issue. This is the first audit of this kind that’s been done in this country,” she said.
Ms Digby said the authority would seek to educate industry players on their responsibilities and it supported the Victorian government’s bid for mandatory product certification of cladding and other sensitive building materials, to reduce confusion about appropriate use.
Of the 170 construction projects audited so far, the VBA said only the Lacrosse and Harvest buildings were found to a pose “significant safety issue”, meaning “Melburnians can continue to have confidence in the safety of the buildings they live in and use”.
However, the Royal Women’s Hospital and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre are among another four other buildings in the central city that the fire brigade has placed on a heightened response due to fears the flammable cladding could fuel an unusually ferocious blaze.
There is growing frustration within the state government and fire brigade that the VBA has still not completed its investigation into the Lacrosse Docklands fire, which occurred in November 2014.
Ms Digby said it would be completed within two months and due to statute of limitations would go before a disciplinary tribunal rather than the court system. “I make no apologies for the thoroughness of the investigation,” she said.
To read the VBA’s full external wall cladding audit report visit http://www.vba.vic.gov.au.