Managing the C Word

An Original Essay by Tarnee Lamb

Picture this: Two buildings, the first in stage one and the second in stage two. Same design, same building materials…but two very different sets of priorities.

Both have Aluminium Composite Panelling in a long, elegant strip from the ground floor up to the roof. It snakes around the fire exit, across the unit windows and wraps beautifully around the balconies. Basically, everywhere you would not want to find this incredibly flammable material, it is there.

This is a recipe for disaster. A nightmare for investors trying to sell and a tragedy waiting to happen for residents.

The Grenfell Tower fire became a global news story in June 2017 when the 24-storey apartment building in West London burst into flames, killing 72 people. People were understandably frustrated, confused, scared and angry and the building industry was thrown into chaos.

We very quickly learned the C word: Cladding. Aluminium Composite Panelling. A thin, elegant, light weight, remarkably durable…and deadly flammable building material.

A building material that up until 2017, the average family had never heard of. Cladding is officially defined as the method to apply one material over another to provide a skin or a layer. Nearly anything can be cladding. Concrete, cement fibre sheeting, weather boarding, timber, colorbond. If it is applied as a layer, it can be classified as cladding.

Despite its attempt to bring vibrant colour to buildings, marksmanship to developments, and provide wind protection for properties on the coast, the fearful C word has been misunderstood ever since.

Hidden in the depths of cladding options is Aluminium Composite Panelling (ACP). ACP consists of two thin aluminium sheets bonded to a non-aluminium core, and the core is the problematic component. It is comprised of polyethylene, a thermoplastic polymer with highly flammable qualities. Imagine a toasted cheese sandwich. Too much heat and the cheese melts through. It’s a similar concept with a polyethylene core and aluminium sheets. Those sheets don’t last long until the core is hot enough to melt and ignite.

It was soon after the Grenfell Tower fire that I began working with the Executive Committees of the two buildings outlined above. At the time, I was the Insurance Manager and I had duty of care to ensure these buildings were educated on the hazards and risk associated with ACP. A fire engineer was engaged for both buildings and undertook several invasive tests. They found the highly flammable ACP in both buildings.

Cue a series of different emotions.

The Insurance manager thinking of insurance, the claims, the premium, the risks.

The Executive Committee concerned about financial implications, who can be at fault and where to place blame.

The owners filled with panic for their investment and the liveability of their home.

The first step was to increase awareness.

The second was about education and mitigation.

The third was the all-important decision: to remove the cladding or not.

Increasing the awareness was met with anger, frustration, confusion, and denial.

Education included creating information packs: reminders to not smoke on balconies, and reminders on proper use of barbeques, candles and even Christmas decorations.

The decision to remove or not to remove became an incredibly complex series of conversations that became far more contentious than anticipated. After years of facilitating research, engaging building consultants, engineers, strata loans, advocating for the owner’s corporation and creating awareness and acceptance of the situation, each building came to opposite conclusions.

One building chose to take on the financial burden and have the cladding removed to keep those inside safe.

The other weighed the financial burden against the risk of loss of life and property damage and ultimately chose to not remove the cladding.

While the risk was the same between both buildings, as was the education, the owner make up was the differentiating factor. The building that chose to remove the cladding was made up of mostly owner-occupiers. The other building, which was majority investment properties chose not to remove the cladding.

These decisions beg the question about where the responsibility for the health and safety of building occupants lies. Based on these examples, if it is a purely financial decision made by investors, tenants are more likely to be put at risk.

All Australian jurisdictions, excluding the ACT and Northern Territory, have enacted or amended existing legislation to address concerns surrounding combustible cladding. While it is assumed that our builders and developers are avoiding using combustible materials, there is no legislation in the ACT holding them to any standards.

In July 2021 the Minister for Sustainable Building and Construction, Rebecca Vassarotti, opened a Cladding Removal scheme to assist in reducing the risk of combustible cladding on residential apartment buildings and providing rebates to eligible owners for testing and assessment of their buildings ‘cladding.

While the number of ACT buildings affected by this risk will likely never be known, a 2022 report found it was likely more than 90. NSW and Victoria both engaged government bodies to conduct a comprehensive assessment of approximately 4,000 buildings in each state. In the ACT, the onus is on the public to voluntarily apply for a fire risk assessment. As managing agents, we see firsthand this decreases the rate of risk identification.

What makes our owners feel obliged to assess their cladding? Is it their duty as a committee? Their own fear and curiosity? Or do they avoid the outcome to keep their levies low and their property more sellable? There are plenty of theories.

A contentious thought but one that has been floated by many owners; were the insurance companies an unofficial instigator of the cladding removal program? Or was it the other states strong approach to the removal and ban of ACP?

If it weren’t for insurance companies refusing to underwrite policies, or maintaining insurance cover with a 200% premium increase, 3 and 6 monthly renewals, and $250,000 excesses leaving you barely insured, and other Australian states strong approach, members of the public can’t help but wonder what our government’s response would have been.

With no recent cladding fires in our memories, it’s easy to get complacent.


ACT Government Scheme July 2021 release ACT Government Cladding FAQ’s

Australia’s Response to Aluminium Composite Panel, Morrissey Law

ACT residential buildings remain at risk of flammable cladding, The Canberra Times, 11 June 2022

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