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Apartments at safety risk – Colin Archer

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As fears mount over the possibility that many Australian unit blocks are cloaked with the same cladding that exacerbated the deadly London Grenfell Tower fire, one strata company is urging unit owners to focus on fire safety compliance as a priority. More on that from Colin Archer who is surprised at how many bodies corporate are simply adopting a ‘don’t want to know’ attitude.

Transcript: 

Kevin:  As fears mount over the possibility that many Australian unit blocks are cloaked with the same cladding that led to that deadly London Grenfell Tower file, one strata company is urging unit owners in Australia to focus on fire safety compliance as a priority.Archers are strata professionals. Their director Colin Archer has said the time is now to address fire safety compliance in Australia’s residential buildings. He joins me to talk about this.

Firstly, welcome to the show, Colin.

Colin:  Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin:  I would have thought that this is a bit of a no-brainer, but are there any body corporates simply adopting a“Don’t want to hear about it” because the remedy may actually come up as a substantial cost or even lead to a valuation downgrade in the building?

Colin:   The impact of this Grenfell fire is certainly heartbreaking, as is any fire, and it should be considered a wakeup call for all Australian apartment owners. Certainly in Queensland, the last big thing we had was the Childers Backpackers, which made a substantial change in our fire safety regulations.

In Melbourne, we’ve had a similar cladding issue in the Lacrosse building. That was fortunately solved and the fire was put out without any fatalities.

Kevin:  Apart from those two examples you’ve given us there, have we got any feeling about how many buildings could be impacted? Is it worse in some states than others, Colin?

Colin:  There haven’t been too many refurbished buildings, and this Grenfell one was a refurbished building, quite an old building. There are a number of buildings being refurbished in Sydney and Melbourne with similar type materials, but I wouldn’t be panicking too badly.

The big issue of the one in Grenfell was that it was refurbished with a non-fire-resistant cladding. If they had actually spent $2 extra a meter, which would have come to about $5000 in a total £8million budget, they would have had fire-resistant cladding and the effect wouldn’t nearly have been as devastating.

Kevin:  Is that same material being brought into Australia at all?

Colin:  I believe it has. It’s called Reynobond, but I believe the Reynobond that comes into Australia is the fire-resistant panel. which is slightly more expensive.

Kevin:  So, given that there may be some buildings that have been impacted that are going to have to be rectified, have we got any idea as to what that could cost potential per unit?

Colin:  Yes, there is. I suppose we’ve only got the Lacrosse building to use as an example, and it’s been reported that the cost of refurbishing there is circa $15 million. $15 million divided by their 320-odd owners would be about $50,000 per owner, per lot.

Kevin:  I would imagine that a number of owners corporations would need to be moving fairly quickly to find out if they have been impacted, because this could actually also have some implications for insurance if they don’t take quick action on this.

Colin:  I shouldharkback to that thing in Childers. It took about eight years for regulations to change. We need to understand with this fire cladding that this has been an issue that goes back to 1991, that there have been at least a dozen substantial fires in various parts of the world, and cladding will exist.

The main issue in Grenfell was that they didn’t have fire safety compliance. That can’t happen to that extent in Australia, because in Australia, any building over 25 meters has to have a sprinkler system. Grenfell didn’t. Any building over 25 meters high has to have two fire escapes. Grenfell had one. And over 20 stories, they have to have fire pressurization in the stairwell, which forces the air into it and the smoke out of it.

Kevin:  Are these Australian standards that you’re talking about?

Colin:  These are Australian standards, yes. They’re actually state standards, but they’re adopted through each state.

Kevin:  Colin, just before I let you go, what should owners corporations be doing now? What would you recommend they do right now?

Colin:  I suggest they wait until this Senate inquiry to look at their cladding, but certainly right now, they need to have a wakeup call, look at their fire safety standards, particularly look at their evacuation plans, because it is without doubt known throughout the world that residents who have been trained in correct emergency procedure and know where to go in the event of a fire are likely to get out of a building ten times faster than those who don’t know.

That’s probably the real issue that people should take up. And certainly, it’s hard to get residents to train for fire safety. We all sit in an office and we all have our couple of times training a year and know that, but when we go home, to comply with the building manager’s request to come and do fire safety training, people get very complacent about it.

Kevin:  Yes, I’m always amused when I’m in a building where there’s a fire drill that happens. The alarm will go and everyone sits inside, “It’s just another test, don’t worry. Just ignore it.” We do become very blasé because of some of those tests, don’t we?

Colin:  In an office and in the big towers, you can get people to do it. But we have 80-story residential towers all around Australia now. We really need to somehow get our residents focused on looking where their evacuation plan is, understanding it, and participating in the training.

Kevin:  Very good advice.And it’s such a terrible thing that we had to have a disaster like Grenfell to wake us up to this. But this is, as you say, a wakeup call. We should take notice of it and do something about it.

My guest has been Colin Archer, director of Archers, the strata professionals. Thanks very much for your time, Colin.

Colin:  Okay. Thanks a lot, Kevin.

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