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Issue #1783      June 28, 2017

Privatisation a safety hazard

Three years ago a fire broke out in Melbourne’s Docklands area, in the Lacrosse apartment block, where inflammable cladding panels had been installed. The fire spread from the 6th floor to the 21st in eleven minutes, and fire fighters said they’d never seen anything like it. CSIRO testing of material taken later from the panels was stopped because of danger to laboratory equipment.

Materials need to be tested, codes enforced, and inadequacies rectified by those responsible.

Two weeks ago flames from a fire in a first-floor London flat escaped through a window and ignited external cladding panels. The fire quickly reached the upper floors and engulfed the 24-storey building, known as the Grenfell Tower. The death toll has now reached 79, and is expected to rise.

Insulating work carried out to the Grenfell Tower building last year as part of a $14.3 million upgrade was in effect equivalent to preparing what one observer called “a perfectly-formed bonfire” around the building’s external surfaces.

Cladding panels installed during the work had aluminium outer linings which melt in the presence of fire, highly flammable inner cores of polyethylene, and backing panels which emit extremely toxic fumes at high temperatures.

Protesting former residents of Grenfell Tower say they asked repeatedly to have fire sprinklers installed on the building. However, they claim they were ignored because they are poor and working class, and this was verified when representatives of the local council and the British government failed to visit the area after the fire.

Last week 4,000 residents were asked to leave their flats while investigations were carried out in dozens of London buildings. Criminal charges may now be laid against those deemed responsible for the Grenfell Tower inferno.

The tragedy has prompted world-wide investigations of material now being used to clad high-rise buildings. Fires involving insulating panels have been reported in other British cities and in Dubai.

No one died in Melbourne’s Lacrosse fire, which did not reach the interiors and was eventually extinguished. However, more than 30 Melbourne residential buildings have been clad with flammable insulation panels, and the Victorian government is considering suing construction company Lend Lease over the use of flammable panels during construction of the Melbourne Royal Women’s Hospital and the Comprehensive Cancer Centre.

Inquiries have now revealed that more than 100 Melbourne buildings have been clad in ways that do not comply with government regulations.

Investigations are being carried out in other capital cities. A freedom-of-information request has revealed that 2,500 NSW buildings may be clad in non-compliant material, including flammable insulation panels.

Where the buck stops

Chinese firms that manufactured the Grenfell Tower panels have been blamed for the fire there. However, unlike asbestos products, flammable panels have not yet been banned. Until they are, designers and contractors are responsible for identifying the composition of the panels and using them responsibly.

Regarding asbestos, the head of one Australian building company said last week: “We now ... test everything ourselves, even if it has a stamp of approval on it”.

In contrast, last year contractors saved about $8,300 during the Grenfell Tower upgrade by substituting flammable panels for others which would have resisted the spread of fire but were more expensive. Non-flammable mineral wool panels would have been the best choice, but that would have doubled the cost of insulating the building.

In Australia many people are being forced to live in high rise apartments because of the outrageous cost of housing, and because state governments are enforcing high-density development in city and suburban areas, often against the wishes of local governments and residents.

There has been widespread criticism of property developers and builders for using unsafe materials in new high-rise buildings.

The Melbourne city building surveyor recently ordered LU Simon, the corporation that built the Lacrosse unit block, to replace flammable panels. The surveyor denied the firm permission to install a cheaper option sprinkler system instead.

However, the building’s residents are now being asked to pay much of the cost of repairing the building, even though the problem appears to have arisen from the builder’s negligence.

Privatisation a safety hazard

Local councils are often accused of responsibility for building failures. However, their involvement is frequently limited by state government legislation which allows developers or building owners to avoid council inspection by commissioning a private firm to certify that works carried out meet safety requirements.

Private certification now constitutes a major conflict of interest within the building industry, just as predicted by councils when the practice was introduced.

Two years ago a fire within a block of units at Bankstown in Sydney resulted in the death of a young woman. The fire could have been extinguished by sprinklers but the building was constructed just short of 25 metres, the maximum legal height for residential buildings without sprinklers.

The building’s defects included a lack of adequate fire signage and low water pressure, but the council couldn’t force the developer to install sprinklers or remedy the defects because a private certifier had given the building a clean bill of health.

Since the introduction of private certification in 1993, widespread defects have become apparent in many high rise blocks, particularly regarding waterproofing and fire safety. Professional body Engineers Australia claims that 85 percent of apartments are defective when declared complete, and that on average post-sale remedial work costs body-corporate owners 27 percent of the cost of erecting the buildings.

A representative of Engineers Australia has also predicted that a major fire will occur in a residential block in NSW, which he says has “the worst system of certification in Australia”.

Despite Australian regulations limiting the use of flammable cladding to the lower storeys of high-rise unit blocks, cladding their entire exterior with that material has become widespread, probably because of private building certification. One observer has predicted that removing flammable panels will be as difficult as the decades-long process of removing asbestos.

And now developers are claiming that unit owners must bear the cost of rectifying inadequacies in high-rise residential buildings.

Corporate greed and government policies that cater to the needs of big developers are the real culprits regarding fire hazards and the other appalling problems that residents of our major cities now face.

Next article – Editorial – Repression and “national security”

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