30 Jan Old problems in new highrise – Sahil Bhasin
A lot of concern has been expressed about the safety of high-rise buildings given the horrific events that occurred at the Grenfell Tower in London and the recent failure of the Opal Tower in Sydney. Sahil Bhasin from Roscon has been looking at the state of high-rise buildings in Australia. This will shock you especially if you are looking at buying an apartment.
Kevin: Well, rightfully so, a lot of concern has been expressed about the safety of high-rise buildings given the horrific events that occurred at the Grenfell Tower in London with combustible cladding, and the recent failure of the Opal Tower in Sydney. This would be alarming for many current owners, but also for purchasers of property.
Kevin: Sahil Bhasin is from Roscon and joins me as my guest to discuss the state of high-rise buildings in Australia. Roscon, by the way, conducts over 5,000 inspections a year for building defects and cladding related issues, and was recently invited by the CEO of the Victorian Cladding Taskforce to provide expert advice and recommendations. So no one better to speak to about this. Sahil, thank you very much for your time.
Sahil: No problems at all, Kevin. Thanks for having me.
Kevin: Let’s deal firstly with the cladding specifically. How widespread has this faulty cladding, that was similar to the one used in Grenfell Tower.. Has that been used in Australia?
Sahil: It sure has. So Kevin, just to clarify things firstly. Cladding is not the right word to be used because cladding is anything that’s on a building façade; bricks, concrete, windows, glass. So the right word to use are the two types of cladding that are being used. One is aluminium composite panels, which is the one that was used at Grenfell Tower. The other is expanded polystyrene. When consumers hear about it, they get a letter from the councils or the fire brigade, it will be relating to ACP, aluminium composite panels, or EPS, expanded polystyrene. Yes, it has been widely used throughout Australia.
Kevin: Which is the bad one? Or are they both bad?
Sahil: They’re both bad types of products that are used on building facades. So expanded polystyrene has some good values with being thermal values, sound property values, so it’s great for keeping heat and cold in. That’s why it’s used for eskies. It’s great along tram and train lines, that’s why they use them around those precincts. It’s lightweight, it’s quick to install, the foundations don’t have to be as deep. However, once it does have a naked flame to it, it catches on fire very, very quickly.
Sahil: The other one being aluminium composite panels. Three types of them available; one being … and these are marketing terms, just to let you know. One is called a polyethylene product, which is essentially what it is, polyethylene which is 100% flammable which was what was used on Grenfell Tower. Then there’s another product called fire-retardant they call it, FR. Which isa 70% mineral mix, 30% polyethylene. Then there’s a non-combustible which is a 90% mineral mix and 10% polyethylene.
Sahil: However, they all fail the Australian standards, and their words are just made up for marketing terms from the actual suppliers themselves.
Kevin: Pretty scandalous if they call it non-combustible that it doesn’t even meet the Australian standards?
Sahil: Well it combusts in around 10 seconds. The Australian standard requires it to have a piece of the material in a furnace at around 700 degrees for about 30 or 60 minutes, and it lasts about 10 seconds when it goes in there. So we’ve got a problem on our hands, yeah.
Kevin: Okay, well why was this cladding allowed in if it doesn’t even meet the Australian standards?
Sahil: Well, the Australian standard 1530 Part One has been around since 1994. However what happens in Australia is that we’ve changed the National Construction Code it’s called to be a more performance-based specification, so it’s a performance-based code now when it used to be a specific code where it used to tell you you have to use x, y, and z. Now it says, if it relates to this performance … If it can meet its performance, then you can utilise the product.
Sahil: So essentially what’s resulted from that is all products having an international code mark certification. Now, some of the code mark certifications don’t meet the Australian standards. Some of the products, what happens is some of the suppliers say that the products meet the standards, however they don’t when individually tested in the testing requirements or under the regime.
Kevin: If they give that sort of undertaking that it does actually meet the standards and then something goes wrong, like heaven forbid what happened in London, who’s responsible for that?
Sahil: Well in Australia to start we have a far better system for fire engineering than what was allowed at Grenfell. So Grenfell fire spread due to an existing building and the actual cladding being put on top of an existing structure. Where in Melbourne, that wouldn’t have even achieved a building permit. So in Melbourne we have … Australia we have far greater fire engineering standards.
Sahil: But to answer your question, all building defects and cladding … all these aluminium composite panels fall under the building defect category are responsible by the builder in Australia under Section 6 of the Domestic Building Contracts Act.
Kevin: Has there been an estimate done of the number of buildings that are likely to be impacted?
Sahil: There has. That is also very light on with the government trying to keep the Australian community less concerned, if I can say it that way. But to give an example of, say, Victoria I’ll use Victoria then we’ll go to Queensland. Victoria as an example, there was 1,400 buildings identified originally. However that was a marketing scheme in itself, because there was only certain classes of buildings, so residential buildings and nursing homes and hospitals that were looked at. We haven’t even started looking at commercial buildings, we haven’t even … That was only with building permit data that was available from the Victorian building authority. So now, as an example when we’re doing our audits, from one council itself I’ve got over 300 building orders on our desk. What I’m trying to say is that there is far greater than the 1,400 … It’s in the, I would say at least 10,000 or so just in Victoria. Because half the buildings haven’t been audited and they haven’t got the information available for half the buildings.
Sahil: So now what’s happening is that Victorian Cladding Taskforce and the Municipal Building Surveyors are employing individual surveyors to literally walk around the neighbourhoods and streets and identify suspect buildings.
Kevin: What about Body Corporates here? If they find or suspect maybe that some of this … And I’ll call it cladding because I can’t use those other words you used-
Sahil: Yeah, sure.
Kevin: Has been used on their building, what can they or what should they do?
Sahil: Sure. So they need to go through a testing regime to find out what’s on the building. Now, a lot of consultants that aren’t fire engineers will tell you to test the product. Now I’ve just told you every single product fails, of the two varieties that I’ve mentioned before. So testing, there’s a specific way to do testing and it’s not through the … Well, I won’t say the big body, but essentially there’s a specific way to do the testing. We can assist in that, but what they essentially have to do is find out the composite of the panel, the three that I mentioned before, and what that will do is allow a fire engineer to come up with a design or a fire engineering brief and a fire engineering report to allow the cladding to either stay or come up with remedial actions that need to be taken to remove some of the cladding. That includes things like fire breaks, extending sprinklers, removing it around exits, things like that.
Kevin: I guess there would be … a lot of Body Corporates, they might not realise that their responsibility is to ensure the safety of all those residents. How seriously in your experience do you think these Body Corporates are actually taking that responsibility?
Sahil: I would say the Body Corporate managers themselves are taking it quite seriously. However the committees themselves and the Body Corporates in terms of a building aren’t being as serious about it. There are a lot of ramifications that come from this, and cost being one of them, fire safety being the other, and there’s a handful that I can name off. But the residents themselves or the owners need to take it a lot more seriously because if you do not follow an emergency order or a building order there are serious ramifications of that. Yeah.
Kevin: Sahil, thank you very much. There’s a wealth of information on this topic on Roscon’s website. It is roscon.com.au, check it out for yourself. Sahil, thank you very much for your time.
Sahil: Thanks, Kevin.