A Towering Inferno – Another Cladding Fire

28 September 2022
By Jeff Anderson

Just under two weeks ago, a massive cladding fire destroyed leading Chinese telecommunications company China Telecom Corp. Ltd.’s office tower located in Hunan’s Changsha city.

While news of the fire was not covered extensively in Australia – due in large part to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II – the fact remains that this fire has again underscored the need for combustible cladding to be removed from the outside of buildings given just how dangerous it has proven to be once alight. Remember Grenfell Towers in London or the Lacrosse Building in Melbourne? Those were some 5 and 8 years ago (respectively), and the sad truth is, too many buildings have failed to implement the measures required to improve building safety and mitigate the risks of fire, despite the devastation of those fires. As evidenced by this most recent fire – where fortunately there were no casualties – the damage to the building as a result of the panels catching fire is catastrophic.

What you need to know about cladding fires

Not all cladding is created equal. In fact, some cladding is outright dangerous and needs to be replaced.

In essence, cladding also referred to as Aluminium composite panels, or ACP, are flat panels around 3 to 5 mm thick, bonded together using a number of different insulating materials. The issue arises when the insulating material used is polyethelene, as this product is highly flammable, hard to extinguish, and ooze when hot, meaning it has the capacity to spread the fire elsewhere. This type of cladding is combustible and deemed to be non-compliant.

The NSW government introduced Project Remediate, a voluntary (opt-in) program to replace flammable cladding for eligible class 2 residential apartment buildings.

Do you need to remove the cladding?

So the program is “Opt-in”, so I do not have to replace it?

Sure, that is one interpretation and sure, each and every building is different. But, in most cases, yes, you will be required to remove the non-compliant cladding. There are other reasons you may want to:

  • To ensure you can get appropriate insurance for your building
  • To reduce risks of fire and thus improve building value
  • For moral reasons, knowing you are doing your best to protect building occupants – potentially saving lives
  • You have a fire order upgrade that requires you to.

What are the risks of leaving combustible cladding on?

Aside from the obvious risk to occupants if there was a fire, there are a few risks to consider in leaving the cladding on:

  • Legal exposure should there be a fire
  • Inability to get relevant building insurance
  • Diminished building value
  • Increased risk of catastrophic damage to the building if it caught alight

At the time it was applied, our panels were compliant, now what?

Fortunately – as far as safety is concerned – the legislation has declared that the requirement for compliance is retrospective. In other words, no matter that you were compliant at the time, these panels are now deemed “non-compliant” so you need to take measures to correct it.

Can I ask the builder to replace this at their cost?

You can absolutely ask or ask the suppliers to. However, our belief is building owners will be forced to fund the cost of the remediation works themselves. The parties originally responsible for the provision of the combustible cladding will likely deny liability, and there would need to be suitable proof that they are solely responsible.

Should you wish it to become a legal matter, it will likely be a slow process through the courts as well, meaning you increase your risks over time and your legal costs will mount up. We would also add, there is no plan for hte government to step in and pay for any remediation works relate to cladding either.

Can we wait to fix this?

Truth is, you could, for a short time, but we do not recommend it. Not only do you put your building tenants at risk for the period you delay, but as material costs continue to increase due to world shortages, your costs are going to continue to as well. As we have covered before, deferred maintenance helps no one.

Where can I learn more?

The NSW Government has set up a comprehensive and useful website that contains information that is easy to understand. We recommend having a read of it. If you know your building is at risk and needs to replace its panels, then take action early. We have helped many Body Corporates, Owner’s Corporations and commercial businesses with the replacement of their panels and can help you. If you would like to speak to one of our experts to learn more, please get in touch today.