Time to Review Fire Compliance Measures

The recent Grenfell tragedy in London, has thrown a spotlight on safety with new buyers and existing owners of apartment blocks urged to fully scrutinise their building’s fire compliance measures. *

In the wake of the catastrophic fire at the Grenfell 24-storey apartment building in West London, calls are naturally out for greater safety measures for Australia’s high-rise buildings.

The Grenfell inferno, which led to at least 80 fatalities in June this year, has been blamed on a type of widely used composite insulation cladding with a polyethylene (plastic) core.

The tragedy raised alarm bells for Australian apartment owners and tenants who immediately wanted to know whether the same insulation was being used and if a similar disaster could happen here.

By early July, most state governments had committed to establishing taskforces charged with investigating the use of non-compliant cladding.

An audit by the Victoria Government found that 51% of buildings had non-compliant materials and two buildings were high risk and required emergency works.

The New South Wales Government looked at more than 178,000 building projects around NSW and identified over 1000 buildings that may have dangerous cladding. It urged building owners to undertake full fire safety inspections, and unveiled a 10-point plan that includes banning dangerous building materials and ensuring that only people with the necessary skills and experience will be responsible for certifying buildings and signing off on fire-safety.

In another alarming fact, the Sydney Public Hearing by the Senate Economics Reference Committee into Non-Conforming Building Products (NCBPs) found that it was not just non-compliant construction materials that we need to be concerned about but also non-compliant construction work.

Minister for Better Regulation Matt Kean said that strong new legislation would be would allow for rectification orders as well as prosecution for people caught supplying, selling or using dangerous materials – you can read more about the 10 Point Plan in his Media Release.

In light of the findings and heightened concerns, the following are some of the other issues and precautions that apartment owners and tenants need to be aware of.

 

Owners Foot Replacement Costs

 

It is less than three years ago, that Australia saw its own major cladding fire at the residential Lacrosse Apartments in Melbourne’s Docklands. This incident involved a non-compliant imported product which looks exactly the same as the compliant Australian-made product.

Started by a cigarette, the fire raced up 13 floors in as little as 10 minutes one night in November 2014. Firefighters were able to evacuate the building and save its 400 residents and mainly credited the high-pressure water in the sprinkler system as being effective in extinguishing the internal flames.

Facing an order to replace the non-compliant cladding at considerable expense (well over $10M) the owners and the builders of the Lacrosse Apartments appealed to the Victoria Building Appeals Board submitting that an alternative solution, which included the installation of additional water sprinklers should be adopted in preference to removing the combustible cladding. The Building Appeals Board rejected that alternative solution proposal and determined that the combustible cladding must be removed. Some reports suggest the 400 plus individual owners will be facing costs close to $50,000 each.

 

Non-Compliant Internal Sprinklers

 

In September 2012, 21-year-old Connie Zhang died after leaping from her burning unit in Bankstown, Sydney. After a long-running coronial inquest, it was found that Connie’s death could have been prevented if the developer of the unit block had installed a sprinkler system as required by fire safety laws.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the coroner reported that there was a litany of individual and systemic failures that contributed to the fire, including the building developer and strata manager’s lax attitude to safety, the lack of resources in the compliance section of the local council, and failures in the process of fire safety checks and building certification.

As a result of the findings, it was recommended that a statutory regime be implemented for the accreditation and auditing of certifiers that can undertake annual fire safety checks and to issue annual fire safety statements. The latest draft regulation dealing with fire safety proposes accreditation for fire safety certifiers but remains under review.

 

Fire Defects May Remain Undetected

 

Fire defects can be one of the major problems in new apartments and may remain hidden for years despite annual fire checks. They are often only uncovered when an owners’ corporation appoints a new fire audit provider who may discover, for example a lack of fire collars, fire dampers or other required safety mechanisms.

 

What Safety Action Should Owners Take?

 

If you are considering purchasing an apartment in a high rise apartment, either off the plan or from existing stock, you should seek expert advice about the risks associated with any non-compliant building materials that have been used. As well as the safety issues, you will want to avoid any replacement costs.

You also need to be reassured about the quality and working order of the fire safety equipment (extinguishers, smoke alarms, sprinklers), evacuation procedures and adequate fire escapes/exits. Your body corporate/owners corporation should also conduct an annual fire inspection audit completed by a credible certified company.

You can also do the following:

  • As part of the purchase contract, ensure there are appropriate warranties from the developer guaranteeing that non-compliant building materials won’t be used. If these are not forthcoming, carefully consider the risk in proceeding with the purchase.
  • Once a building is completed, Owners Corporation insurance policies should be examined carefully and updated to consider the impact on insurance coverage if non-compliant cladding has been used or non-compliant fire safety systems are installed.
  • Statutory warranty periods must be managed carefully to avoid an owners corporation missing an opportunity to commence proceedings within the relevant warranty period.

 

Cohen Handler buyer’s agents are familiar and knowledgeable about issues regarding fire safety and are able to identify any potential safety ‘red flags’. We will ensure any recommended apartment is inspected by an expert to mitigate risks associated with non-compliant cladding. Contact us now. 

*The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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