In the early hours of 14 June 2017, fire engulfed a 24-storey apartment block in West London’s North Kensington district known as the Grenfell Tower, causing at least 80 deaths and many injuries.
While English authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire and its rapid spread, initial indications suggest the fire started from within the building and spread both internally and externally. It also appears that a recently installed external wall cladding had contributed to the vertical and lateral spread of the fire.
The Grenfell Tower fire reinforced the need to ensure buildings are safe from the risk of rapid fire spread not only in the United Kingdom but worldwide including Australia. The tragedy put a particular focus on the installation of potentially combustible cladding products including in the refurbishment of old buildings.
In June 2017, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote to the Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan MLA seeking the support of all state and territory governments to ensure the necessary steps are taken to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in Australia.
The audit is being carried out in the three phases detailed below.
Phase One – the Planning phase – complete
This phase involved:
- the establishment of an audit team, audit plan, assessment methodology and communication plan; and
- the establishment and regular meetings of an Audit Regulator Group (ARG) consisting of Building Commission, Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and local government representatives; and an Audit Stakeholder Group (ASG), consisting of building industry and building owner representative bodies.
Phase Two – the Execution phase – commenced
This phase involves:
- Stage 1A – the identification of buildings in the metropolitan area (complete) and in regional areas (almost complete) of the class and height falling within the audit scope;
- Stage 1B – the identification of buildings within stage 1A that have cladding attached (almost complete);
- Stage 2A – the collation of data for preliminary assessments of buildings in the metropolitan area and in regional areas (almost complete);
- Stage 2B – the preliminary assessment of buildings in the metropolitan and in regional areas to determine buildings that require further investigation (almost complete);
- Stage 3 – the gathering and assessment of building information and the carrying out of site inspections to determine whether any action is required in relation to the existence of cladding on the building. This stage may involve testing of façade materials (about to commence); and
- Stage 4 – determination of buildings requiring remedial action (not yet commenced).
These stages are operating concurrently and the figures in the audit update are updated weekly to reflect this.
Phase 3 – the Reporting phase – not yet commenced
This phase will involve drafting and publishing an audit report.
The Building Commission recognises it must take a leadership role on behalf of the community of Western Australia to ensure that cladding does not pose an unacceptable risk to building occupants.
The Building Commission is assisting owners by undertaking a preliminary assessment to determine whether the existence of cladding on their building poses a level of risk that warrants further investigation. A fire engineer has been engaged to assist the Building Commission with the preliminary assessments and during investigations as required. The Building Commission expects to eliminate some buildings from the audit once the type of cladding has been determined. Any testing that is required will be facilitated by the Building Commission on behalf of owners.
The Building Commission is working with Strata Community Australia WA (SCA WA), as a representative group of strata managers, to ensure building owners are updated in relation to the progress of the audit.
SCA WA and the relevant local governments are currently assisting the Building Commission by identifying the building owners and representatives for buildings assessed in the audit.
The Building Commission will communicate with building owners once the preliminary assessment of their building is completed. Depending on the level of risk identified during the preliminary assessment, owners will be advised that:
- further investigation of their buildings will not be carried out as part of the audit but that they may wish to have their own assessment done; or
- their buildings will undergo further investigation including obtaining the building approval documentation from the relevant local government permit authority and the builder.
Buildings identified for further investigation do not necessarily have issues with their cladding. These buildings have simply been identified as having external wall cladding incorporated into their construction that, due to factors such as the type, extent and location of the cladding, requires further investigation. The investigation is expected to eliminate many buildings once the type of cladding used has been determined. For example, much of the cladding used in buildings in compressed fibre cement which poses little risk of fire spread.
For privacy reasons, the Building Commission does not intend to disclose information about individual buildings unless it considers it is in the public interest to do so.
A breakdown of figures relating to the audit of privately-owned WA buildings is provided in the State-wide cladding audit status update. The various stages of the audit will operate concurrently and the figures are being constantly updated to reflect this.
To ensure all WA buildings are captured in the audit, the Building Commission recently issued direction notices to 115 building surveying contractors in regards to building works in progress. The direction notices requested that the Building Commission be provided with information relating to any Certificates of Design Compliance issued by their offices from July 2017 that involved high risk buildings with cladding.
Further information about the audit progress is contained in the ‘How is the audit being undertaken?’ section above.
The state-wide cladding audit will:
- Identify buildings three storeys and over, classes 2, 3, 4 and 9 with cladding, constructed or refurbished (where a building licence/permit was issued) after 2000. These are generally buildings in which people sleep – such as apartments, hotels and other short-stay accommodation – or which accommodate vulnerable occupants or high occupancy events.
- Determine whether cladding associated with these buildings poses an unacceptable risk of fire spread.
- Apply an appropriate intervention where an unacceptable risk is found to exist.
Buildings are being assessed based on their degree of risk to public safety.
The audit scope has been developed in partnership with other regulatory and advisory bodies assisting in the audit under a newly-formed Audit Regulator Group (ARG). The ARG includes representatives from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, the Western Australian Local Government Association (on behalf of local government), representatives of the three permit authorities of Perth, Victoria Park and Cockburn, and members of the Building Commission audit team.
The audit scope is consistent with the approach being taken nationally. The Building Commission is collaborating with regulators in other jurisdictions that are similarly auditing buildings with cladding attached.
The state-wide cladding audit is assessing buildings with any type of cladding attached that fit within the audit scope.
Cladding is not limited to aluminium composite panelling during this audit and the audit may carry out testing of a cladding to ensure that what was specified was in fact installed.
The Building Commission is coordinating the state-wide cladding audit of private buildings.
The audit team, which includes a range of building and fire experts, is collaborating with several agencies to carry out the audit. This may result in the appointment of additional staff to assist with the execution of the audit.
The Building Commission wrote to all Western Australian permit authorities on 4 July 2017 asking for their assistance with the state-wide cladding audit for buildings within their jurisdictions.
Permit authority certification records and Department of Fire and Emergency Services building records have been used to identify buildings that require further assessment.
Through the Audit Regulator Group (ARG), the Building Commission worked collaboratively with three local government representatives, WALGA and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services to finalise the scope of the audit and to identify buildings with cladding attached.
An Audit Stakeholder Group (ASG) met for the first time on 6 July 2017 to assist with the facilitation of information about the audit. The ASG includes representatives from (in alphabetical order):
- Australian Institute of Architects
- Australian Institute of Building
- Australian Institute of Building Surveyors
- Building Commission (WA)
- City of Cockburn
- City of Perth
- Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)
- Department of Fire and Emergency Services
- Housing Industry Association
- Local Government Insurance Services Western Australia
- Master Builders Association
- Property Council of Australia
- Society of Fire Safety
- Strata Community Australia
- Town of Victoria Park
- Western Australian Local Government Association
It is possible that the audit will identify buildings within the scope of the audit that require further investigation. The Building Commission and relevant permit authority will work with building owners to ensure the cladding attached to their buildings meets the performance requirements of the Building Code of Australia.
State housing and publicly-owned buildings
The Building Commission is overseeing the state-wide cladding audit of state housing and publicly-owned buildings.
The Department of Communities is responsible for assessing state housing buildings, and is the primary State Government contact for enquiries about the cladding on these buildings. This includes the Foyer Oxford building in Leederville.
The Department of Finance – Building Management and Works is assisting some government agencies with the assessment of publicly-owned buildings. Other government agencies with responsibility for public buildings are undertaking their own investigations with the assistance of relevant experts.
The assessment of cladding on Western Australian buildings will continue for as long as it takes to be satisfied the cladding meets the fire safety requirements.
The Building Commission has worked collaboratively with local government permit authorities and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services to identify buildings with cladding attached and preliminary assessments of most of these buildings have been carried out.
The time it will take to complete the audit will depend on the number of buildings found to have cladding attached and the overall fire safety of the buildings.
Every building is unique and will need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Fire events in Australia and around the world highlight the need for building owners and occupants to remain vigilant about maintaining safety and knowing their emergency response in the case of a building fire.
In some of these cases, the use of certain types of external wall cladding was found to contribute to the rapid fire spread across the façade of the building.
Aluminium composite panels (ACPs) were found to have contributed to the spread of fire in the Lacrosse apartment building in Melbourne in 2014, however not all ACPs is dangerous. Such products are usually manufactured in a range of grades that can be used appropriately in some circumstances.
Identifying ACPs on a building, including the combustible version of the product, is not necessarily cause for concern. It depends on whether the cladding is used in accordance with the applicable codes and standards.
Home owners with concerns about cladding should contact their building manager in the first instance.
Building managers should raise any concerns about a building’s cladding with the builder. If building managers are unsure who the builder was they should contact the relevant local government.
If dissatisfied with their builder’s response the building manager or owner may wish to speak to the building surveyor who certified the building or engage a suitably qualified fire engineer to carry out a performance assessment of the cladding to ensure it does not pose an unacceptable risk of fire spread.
Building owners and managers who intend to arrange a performance assessment of their buildings are asked to notify Building and Energy on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 1300 489 099.
Building managers may arrange to have any necessary rectification works carried out. A building permit may be required for such building work.
If their building has been completed in the past six years, home owners may be able to lodge a building services complaint with the Building Commission. They will need to provide evidence to support their complaint.
Anyone associated with an apartment building who is concerned that the building managing body (often referred to as the body corporate) is not taking these fire safety concerns seriously is asked to contact the Building Commission on email@example.com or phone 1300 489 099.
The Building Commission has published a Fire safety in existing apartment buildings fact sheet, to remind building owners, managers and occupiers of their roles and responsibilities in keeping themselves and their buildings fire safe.
The Building Commission commenced an initial audit of ACPs following the Lacrosse apartment building fire in Melbourne on 25 November 2014. The Lacrosse fire was identified by the Victorian authorities as having spread via ACPs attached to the external walls of the building.
Working with the City of Perth and Town of Victoria Park, the initial audit assessed the fire risk from ACPs in high-rise apartment, hotel and public buildings that were over three storeys in height and constructed in the past 10 years. All of the ACPs assessed in the initial audit contained fire resistant cores.
Ninety-one buildings (70 in City of Perth and 21 in the Town of Victoria Park) initially met the criteria for the initial audit (in regards to use and size of the building). Nine of those buildings in City of Perth and seven in the Town of Victoria Park were found to contain ACPs and were further examined in the initial audit.
The initial audit found no buildings in which the use of ACPs gave cause for concern – all of the ACPs assessed in these audits had fire resistant cores. It should be noted that the initial audit specifically targeted fire risk from ACPs without fire-resistant cores.
The type of product used on the Lacrosse apartment building was not identified in any of the Western Australian buildings audited in the initial audit.
Further information is provided in the interim audit report.
Fire safety concerns have been raised about the use of external wall cladding where that product had not been tested or demonstrated to meet the requirements of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) for that use.
Such products can lead to a rapid vertical and lateral spread of a fire via the façade of the building which raises serious safety concerns.
Western Australian building legislation requires buildings to comply with the BCA which includes requirements on fire safety. In general the BCA Volume 1 contains provisions for external walls of buildings falling under type A and type B construction (typically medium rise and high-rise commercial buildings including residential apartment buildings) to be non-combustible.
Further information for building surveyors, builders, designers and owners is provided in Industry Bulletin 54: External wall cladding – fire safety.
Any non-compliant use of cladding should be reported to the Building Commission in the first instance.
All building work in Western Australia must comply with the applicable building standards. The Building Act 2011 adopts the Building Code of Australia (BCA), which forms part of the National Construction Code as the primary applicable building standard.
The BCA is produced and maintained by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) on behalf of the Australian Government and each state and territory government.
The BCA is a performance-based document with nationally consistent, minimum necessary standards for relevant safety (including structural safety and safety from fire), health, amenity and sustainability objectives.
In order to comply with the BCA the building must meet the mandatory performance requirements of each part of the BCA that is relevant to the building.
When designing a building solution to satisfy compliance with the BCA, a choice can be made to use the deemed-to-satisfy (DTS) provisions or to develop a performance solution.
A performance solution can be developed in accordance with the BCA that suits a particular building and gives the flexibility to design and build contemporary buildings while still achieving compliance with the minimum performance requirements.
The BCA performance requirement CP2 requires buildings to have elements that avoid the spread of fire. In order to meet the DTS solution for high-rise buildings, an external wall is required to be non-combustible. The DTS permits the use of certain materials with combustible elements provided that it does not expose the building to unacceptable risk of the spread of fire.
ACPs generally come in three types, each with differing amounts of combustibility. Certain ACP attachments may be able to comply with the DTS provisions of the BCA. However, the use of an ACP will generally require consideration under performance to demonstrate that it will not constitute an undue risk of fire spread via the façade of the building and meets the performance requirements of the BCA.
Building surveyors have a role in certifying buildings’ compliance with applicable building standards. This includes checking compliance with applicable building standards when issuing a certificate of design compliance (CDC) for the purpose of obtaining a building permit before building work can commence and issuing a certificate of building compliance or construction compliance when applying for an occupancy permit.
The builder’s role includes ensuring that the correct materials have been used in the construction. The builder must ensure that on completion the building complies with the plans and specifications that are specified in the applicable CDC and applicable building standards.
The Building Commission, through the Building Services Board, registers builders and building surveyors.
As part of its proactive measures, the Building Commission conducts audits of building service providers on a random and targeted basis.
The Building Commission’s audits schedule is developed having regard to information arising from its disputes, auditing, enforcement and intelligence monitoring activities.
Should a builder or building surveyor be found to have failed to meet their obligations under the Building Services (Registration) Act 2011, the Building Services Board or State Administrative Tribunal have a range of disciplinary actions/outcomes available to them, which include a caution, reprimand, fines, requiring further training to be undertaken, placing conditions on a builder’s registration or deregistering the builder or building surveyor. There are also offences under the Building Act 2011 for failure to comply with applicable building standards, which may result in fines or imprisonment for repeated offences.
Permit authorities, usually the local government, have powers under the building legislation to enforce the compliance, maintenance and safety of buildings within their jurisdiction. In the event a building’s cladding is found to be dangerous the permit authority can issue a building order requiring that it brought to a safe state.
The ABCB is examining the use of non-compliant external cladding products on buildings in Australia to find ways to improve product use and compliance.
Nationally, Building Ministers in conjunction with the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) are working to deliver a comprehensive package of improvements to tackle the challenges associated with product compliance.
Through the national Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF), Building Ministers including the Western Australian Minister for Commerce and Industrial Relations Bill Johnston MLA are working cooperatively to address safety issues associated with non-conforming and non-complying building products.
A Senior Officers’ Group consisting of representatives from all jurisdictions has been established to report on ways to minimise the risk to consumers, businesses and the community.
At its meeting of December 2016, the BMF agreed to a comprehensive package of measures to improve fire safety in high-rise buildings.
The comprehensive package of measures, which includes measures that Ministers previously requested the ABCB to implement, seek to:
- Reference a contemporary and rigorous testing standard, developed based on international best practice, for full scale testing of the fire performance of external façade systems, which is particularly relevant for new and innovative systems.
- Provide rigorous, contemporary and clear Code requirements to improve application and compliance.
- Provide practitioners with the tools and supporting material to support Code compliance.
- Increase industry awareness of the need to be cognisant to the potential risks associated with non-compliance.
- Enhance on-site checking, auditing and enforcement.
The BMF communiqué is available from the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation and Science website.
The Australian Building Codes Board website contains information about product certification and the reporting of non-conforming building products.
Information including recent developments in regards to non-conforming building products is on the Building Commission website.