Since the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June, developments in product compliance have sped up so quickly that it can be hard to keep pace with the latest thinking, and even harder to separate out official guidance from opinion and speculation.
At our recent forum in Melbourne, a room full of consultants discussed how their work has (and hasn’t) changed since June, and how they are responding to the challenges of specifying compliant products. We covered product failures ranging from shattering glass panels to bolt failures, asbestos and toxic mould, and of course aluminium composite panel (“ACP”) cladding.
Overview of Findings and Investigations
To get the foundations right, we started with a recap of some recent findings:
- The Senate Committee’s interim report on cladding recommended a ban on import or use of polyethylene core ACPs, saying “the committee does not consider there to be any legitimate use of PE core ACPs on any building type”. However, noting the dissenting report by Coalition senators on the Committee, coupled with recent ministerial statements, it’s by no means certain that this ban will in fact happen. Other useful recommendations from the report included national licensing for all participants in the construction industry, and making Australian Standards freely available.
- The WA Building Commission’s Final Report on Perth Children’s Hospital found three types of ACP (Alpolic/FR, Alucobond Plus and Haidabond) to be compliant when used in limited quantity as sunshades or linings (none was used as a full-wall cladding system). The first two products came with CodeMark certification, but the builder and building surveyor were criticised for using Haidabond without obtaining appropriate certification. On the separate issue of unitised ceiling panels containing asbestos, findings of the Interim Report were confirmed: although the builder’s processes were “comprehensive and consistent with industry practice”, and required materials to be asbestos free, the product was sourced through a complicated supply chain via an Australian subsidiary, Chinese parent company, and various suppliers within China, and no local testing was done once the product reached Australia.
- The Victorian Building Authority audit of around 170 buildings published in February 2016 found 51% non compliance, but only identified two buildings where cladding required an immediate emergency order. In Adelaide, an audit of 4,500 buildings identified 77 that “warrant further investigation”, but so far none that immediately “represents a safety risk”.
- Ongoing investigations include the Victorian Cladding Taskforce, WA state-wide cladding audit and the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
- The Australian Building Codes Board is planning an out-of-cycle amendment to the NCC. Some key changes are requiring all wall elements to be non-combustible (including attachments, but not including a specified list of exclusions such as mandatory signs), and a new verification method for avoiding undue spread of fire up a façade (which is a combination of fire rated panels tested to the new AS 5113:2016, balcony sprinklers and cavity barriers). Public comment closed in September and the changes, once finalised, are due to take effect in March 2018.
All of this reinforces the vital importance of clearly understanding the NCC requirements that apply to your building, and then either obtaining certification from manufacturers to confirm that their product meets the deemed-to-satisfy requirement, or having a robust paper trail showing the formal approval of a performance solution. When it comes to fire rating, advice may need to come from fire engineers as well as building surveyors/certifiers.
The way ahead
Drawing on our audience’s combined experience, our discussion forum identified some invaluable suggestions for achieving better results when it comes to building products.
Although it would be nice to think that Grenfell Tower had caused a revolution in the industry, and a new commitment to prioritising quality and compliance over cost outcomes, there was a feeling that the pressure to minimise costs has not been alleviated. However, there were reports of some lenders seeking to protect their investment by requiring assurances from principals and builders that the project is NCC compliant. This may provide much needed support for consultants championing better quality materials.
Noting that AS 1530.1 is inadequate for testing a full panel array, some alternatives suggested were AS 5113:2016, BS8414, NFPA 285, and EN 13501-1. For now, these alternative standards would require a properly documented and approved performance solution.
And these were two last thoughts to come out of our discussion. Firstly, that the current specific focus on ACPs glosses over accumulated risk caused by many other potentially combustible plastics and other products that form part of modern buildings. And secondly, even if using “fire rated” ACPs with a substantial mineral content core, it’s important to remember that even these products can still burn. The video in this recent article from the Adelaide Advertiser provides a memorable illustration, and also highlights the superior performance of the “fire rated” model.
Risk Manager, informed