Building safety reform ‘too slow’ despite flammable cladding ban agreement, says Institute

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The Neo200 building.

The Neo200 building. Image: Neo200

The result of an annual meeting of state and federal building ministers is disappointing, despite an agreement on an “in principle” ban on flammable aluminium composite cladding, says the Australian Institute of Architects. 

Clare Cousins, national president of Institute, said the outcome of the Building Minister’s Forum would fall short of community expectations, following the dramatic fire at the Neo200 building in the Melbourne CBD on the morning of 4 February. 

The ministers, at a meeting in Hobart, discussed the fire in Melbourne as well as the implications of the defects at Opal Tower in Sydney. The forum agreed to a national ban on the unsafe use of combustible cladding in new construction, subject to a “cost/benefit analysis being undertaken on the proposed ban, including impacts on the supply chain, potential impacts on the building industry, any unintended consequences, and a proposed timeline for implementation,” according to a communiqué.

“This is unacceptable and fails even the most basic test of common sense,” said Cousins. “Prohibiting any further installation of such products, without any equivocation, should have been the starting point. 

“Governments have an opportunity and responsibility, having identified the danger and risk posed by certain types of flammable cladding, to do something about it before any lives are lost.”

She also criticized the forum in particular for failing to fully implement the 24 recommendations set out in a report commissioned by the forum itself, authored by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir, titled Building Confidence: Improving the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia

“[It] is an opportunity they appear to be squandering,” said Cousins. “A full year since receiving the Shergold-Weir report, all we have is a commitment to release a ‘joint implementation plan’ addressing its recommendations by the end of this month. 

“The Shergold-Weir report and the Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into non-conforming building products sets out a clear and sensible path to reform that has been backed by industry. There is no reason to continue to delay implementation any longer.

“There is no room to prevaricate when lives are at stake, it is as simple as that.”

The Institute is supportive of proposed changes to the National Construction Code and the focus on ensuring compliance with it.

Ahead of the meeting, the Victorian government’s minister for planning, Richard Wynne, said it would push for a nation-wide ban on combustible cladding.

“We’ve seen how quickly fires spread up buildings fitted with combustible cladding and we have a responsibility to stamp out these sub-standard building materials,” said Wynne.

 “Victoria has pushed for a national response to flammable cladding ever since the 2014 Lacrosse fire but has been met with frustrating resistance from the federal government. Given the fire risk and the cost to apartment owners to fix cladded buildings, the most common-sense approach is to stop this material from coming in to the country all together – and we need federal government support to make that happen.”

Neo200 was part of a 2015 audit initiated following a similar fire at the Lacrosse building in Docklands. “The City of Melbourne issued a building notice to ensure that any risks associated with cladding were addressed,” the council said. “Subsequently the City of Melbourne required the building owners to upgrade fire safety measures and this work was completed.” 

The ABC reports that 30 more buildings in the Melbourne CBD, that were previously deemed safe, will be re-inspected for fire safety.

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