In the wake of London’s catastrophic Grenfell Towers fire, and of local incidents including a balcony fire at Melbourne Dockland’s LaCrosse Tower, governments are increasingly acting to limit the use of Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) cladding. Also referred to as flammable or combustible cladding, use of these materials – especially in buildings over 3 levels – is now presumed non-compliant with building and construction codes in Victoria. In its 2017 report the Victorian Cladding Taskforce found the widespread use of combustible cladding to have been enabled by a poor culture of industry compliance; issues with supply and marketing of materials; and multiple regulatory systems failures.
In this episode of This Must Be the Place Elizabeth speaks with Sahil Bhasin, National General Manager of Roscon – a building consultant group specialising in expert reports – about his perspective on the causes and costs of the combustible cladding problem (AKA ‘fiasco’). Sahil provided advice to the Senate Committee for Building Defects, and to the Victorian Cladding Taskforce.
Here Sahil explains what combustible cladding is, why and where there is so much of it (look, low cost, easy to install, etc.), applicable standards, enforcement and data gaps, and who is paying for the scramble to rectify. He also offers a glimpse into the black hole of governance decisions behind it. The episode considers the effects of decades of cumulative legislative changes including to insurance, building surveyors, and building authority jurisdictions, combined with a construction boom. Compounding difficulties of ongoing compliance, Australia faces the legacy of thousands of buildings already swathed in combustible materials. In Victoria tens of thousands of buildings, and hundreds of thousands of people, are in the midst of auditing and rectification set to last several years. Owners Corporations are grappling with estimates as high as $40,00 to $60,000 per apartment and millions of dollars per building, and an uncertain process within which properties are in limbo.
A theme is governments passing the costs of fixing cladding onto apartment owners. For example courts ruled that, as a result of legislative changes, the Victorian Building Authority cannot order directions to builders to fix non-compliant buildings after owners move in. Combined with audits and with changes exempting builders from home warranty insurance for buildings over three levels, homebuyers particularly in high-rise buildings have few consumer protections. With major builders going into administration, there are also often few legal recourses. To Sahil, “the government’s got itself to blame and the consumers are the ones paying the price”. Sahil argues recently announced loan schemes are not only unfair, but are political spin and too complex to work in practice.
Sahil says cladding is a bigger problem in Victoria than figures often cited. And that new construction continues to use cladding, even in the same municipalities currently issuing hundreds of notices to owners: “the message isn’t getting to the core, which is the builders”. Also included are perspectives on: lack of warranty insurance; misleading language of suppliers, media and the politics of risk, devaluation, commercial buildings, differences between Australia and UK, the role of fire engineers, resourcing issues including essential services audits, fixes (avoided), and the power and influence of the building industry.
With an aggregate bill of billions of dollars, the fallout from cladding is unfolding through industries, property markets, and legal systems. As well as immediate practical challenges, the cladding story raises broader questions around the nature of risk and liability in our buildings and cities, and the frameworks that govern them.
Disclosures: Elizabeth owns and lives in an apartment in an impacted building. Sahil’s company consults for buildings with cladding.
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