Cladding ‘time bomb’: Are you living in danger?

 

A FLAMMABLE time bomb is still ticking for owners and occupants of Queensland apartments with a drawn out audit yet to determine the exact number of buildings affected by the combustible cladding crisis.

Hundreds of buildings throughout the state are understood to be on a list of properties identified as "potentially" containing the dangerous cladding.

And it will not be until mid-2021 - when fire engineers are required to have undertaken risk assessments of all the buildings on the list - that the full extent of the problem is finally known in Queensland.

Meanwhile, dramatic events in other states have sparked authorities to accelerate steps to protect residents and rectify affected buildings to overcome the crisis and limit its fallout.

Cladding-fuelled fires already have flared and threatened occupants of buildings in both Victoria and the ACT.

Spreading vertically via combustible cladding, fire engulfs London’s Grenfell Tower.
Spreading vertically via combustible cladding, fire engulfs London’s Grenfell Tower.

Also, recently, in a further escalation of the unfolding crisis, interstate residents have been ordered to abandon their homes after being deemed unsafe to live in due to the extensive use of the flammable material.

The incidents have heightened concerns in Queensland as its audit process drags on.

"I wouldn't be putting my head down on the pillow at night in a building suspected with this material on it - absolutely not," says the Strata Community Association's Queensland president, Simon Barnard.

The peak strata body represents 50,000 bodies corporate throughout Queensland with an estimated 1.2 million residents.

"This stuff is still on buildings and it's still catching fire," Barnard says. "It's a massive concern and thousands of people will be impacted."

In 2017, an inferno fuelled by combustible cladding killed 72 people in London's Grenfell Tower raising alarm bells worldwide over the use of substandard building materials.

Three years earlier, a fire raced up 13 storeys of Melbourne's Lacrosse building in as little as 10 minutes, spreading quickly via cladding on the external facade. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.

Two other cladding-related blazes have been reported in Australia this year - one in another Melbourne residential tower and the other in a Canberra high-rise apartment building.

So far, there has been none in Queensland.

Nevertheless, the danger still lurks, with the crisis threatening to have dire ramifications well beyond the state's construction and property sectors.

The Lacrosse tower fire in Melbourne’s Docklands.
The Lacrosse tower fire in Melbourne’s Docklands.

In the potential impact zone is its tourism industry, particularly the high-rise holiday mecca of the Gold Coast.

Gold Coast-based body corporate legal specialist Clayton Glenister from MBA Lawyers says the tourist strip is not only sitting on what is first and foremost a "life-threatening time bomb" but also a potential major risk to its lifeblood.

He says a number of Gold Coast buildings already have been identified with the dangerous cladding.

"The Gold Coast is a mecca of holiday apartments and its skyline is a tourism icon. So, imagine if one of those buildings goes up in flames and people get injured or killed," Glenister says.

"That would have a hugely negative impact for the tourism industry not only on the Gold Coast but the whole of Queensland as a holiday destination."

 

The famous skyline of the Gold Coast, a high-rise holiday mecca.
The famous skyline of the Gold Coast, a high-rise holiday mecca.

The state's cladding audit to identify buildings containing the potentially deadly polyethylene-core cladding - also known as ACPs (aluminium composite panels) - is not due to be completed until May 2021.

Over coming months, the tally of properties required to display the "Affected Private Building Notice" is sure to keep rising.

The Queensland Building and Construction Commission states that out of more than 20,000 buildings investigated in the first two stages of its audit "many thousands" have been cleared.

 

Fire flares in Melbourne’s Neo200 tower.
Fire flares in Melbourne’s Neo200 tower.

But what it is yet to reveal is the number of buildings on the list of the third and most critical stage of its investigation into the extent of the cladding crisis in Queensland.

On this list are buildings that have been inspected and identified as "potentially" containing flammable cladding but must be further assessed by fire engineers to confirm if the dangerously defective material is present and evaluate the fire safety risk.

Property industry sources have told The Courier-Mail anywhere from 500 to as many as 2000 buildings were estimated to be on the list.

As the scale of the problem is slowly uncovered, tensions also are likely to reach the boil as stakeholders seek an answer to a burning question. Who pays to fix it?

"The impacts of this crisis are going to be far-reaching and liability will be a big issue," Glenister says.

 

The remains of Grenfell Tower in London after it was engulfed by a fire fuelled by combustible cladding.
The remains of Grenfell Tower in London after it was engulfed by a fire fuelled by combustible cladding.

With removal and remediation costs expected to be as high as $60,000 to $100,000 per dwelling, some owners simply will not be able to foot the bill.

Barnard says above all else the cladding crisis is a life-and-death issue and "time is absolutely of the essence".

 

Cladding undergoing fire safety tests.
Cladding undergoing fire safety tests.

"One cigarette butt on a balcony, that's all it takes," he says, referring to the spark that ignited the cladding fire in Melbourne's Lacrosse building.

In other states, security guards have been hired to patrol affected buildings around-the-clock to alert occupants and authorities if a fire breaks out, as well as help with early evacuation.

QBCC Commissioner Brett Bassett says the audit process is being rigorously carried out to ensure "nothing is overlooked and Queenslanders are protected".

But Barnard says that while Queensland was the first to move with some firm policies around cladding it had since fallen behind other states, including Victoria where $600 million has been allocated to help solve the crisis.

To date, there has been no such commitment from the Queensland Government.

"This is a major crisis that will have an impact across multiple industries and the more we look at it, the bigger it gets," Barnard says.

The vertical path of the Lacrosse tower blaze.
The vertical path of the Lacrosse tower blaze.
The Neo200 tower’s blackened balconies.
The Neo200 tower’s blackened balconies.

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