Tenants in the dark on flammable-cladding fire-trap risk in their buildings

Tenants in the dark on flammable-cladding fire-trap risk in their buildings

Resident Matt Roberts outside the  Elm Apartments in Southbank.
Resident Matt Roberts outside the Elm Apartments in Southbank.  Photo: Jason South

Hundreds of tenants living in at least a dozen high-rise blocks are unaware their buildings could be flammable-cladding fire traps.

In the wake of the Grenfell fire disaster in London, it has become clear that neither the Victorian government nor its agencies understand the full extent of the cladding threat across Melbourne.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne has slammed the Victorian Building Authority, which has been leading the government's investigation into the cladding issue, for a slow response to the controversy.

“The VBA needs to be more responsive when dealing with the critical issue of cladding,” a spokesman for Mr Wynne said.

Lynn Li, 28, said she had not been told anything about the cladding on her building.
Lynn Li, 28, said she had not been told anything about the cladding on her building.  

He said the building authority needed to explain why it had taken so long to hold disciplinary hearings into the building practitioners who worked on the Lacrosse building, which was ravaged by a blaze fuelled by cladding similar to that installed on Grenfell Tower.

“They need to explain why it has taken so long to bring the practitioners in question before a disciplinary hearing,” the minister's spokesman said.

Residents are now finding themselves in the troubling situation of learning secondhand they are living in buildings that have been placed on a heightened alert by fire authorities due to suspected flammable cladding.

“That's terrifying,” said Matt Roberts, 31, after being told his building, the Elm Apartments in Southbank, is one of six buildings the Metropolitan Fire Brigade has placed on its enhanced response list.

The builder of the 286-unit tower, Hickory, said it was now undertaking testing, despite having certificates from the cladding manufacturer that Hickory said verified its compliance with the building code.

“Knowing what we know from recent events in the Docklands and London, we have decided to build a mock-up of a small section of the building and have this tested by the CSIRO in order to work out if additional precautionary measures can be implemented that will better protect this building in the event of a fire,” a Hickory spokeswoman said.

The Lacrosse building in Melbourne's Docklands was hit by fire in 2014.
The Lacrosse building in Melbourne's Docklands was hit by fire in 2014.  Photo: Scott Barbour

Lynn Li, 28, lives in the Harvest Apartments in South Melbourne, where 30 per cent of the building's facade is covered in combustible aluminium and polystyrene panels.

Ms Li and a number of other residents said they had not been told anything about the cladding – even though the building is considered particularly vulnerable as it does not have a sprinkler system.

There is no set timeline for when the cladding will be removed by the owners of the building.

“I'm just feeling very uncomfortable,” said Ms Li, a Crown casino worker. “They have not told us. They should have, especially after London.”

Metropolitan Fire Brigade commander Mark Carter said the brigade would support a national audit of cladding used in high-rise buildings.

Commander Carter said residents living in the buildings on the fire authority's enhanced response list should not be left in the dark – as they might unwittingly put themselves in more danger by smoking on their balcony.

“We want them to know because we want them to take some measures themselves to help look after their own backyard,” he said.

While councils have informed the owners corporations of buildings where cladding is being investigated, it appears that the message has not got through to all residents.

Industry insiders warn that throughout the suburbs, a number of medium-sized apartment buildings that do not have sprinkler systems could also be covered in flammable cladding.

Fire safety engineer Stephen Kip, contracted to assess problem buildings by owners, said he believed another 10 buildings across metropolitan Melbourne should be evacuated.

But he said the councils responsible for investigating the buildings' safety were worried about leaving residents homeless.

Mr Kip said the buildings were dangerous as they had combustible facades and, in some cases, mould was growing inside the building due to water leaks.

“Each building would have more than 100 people living in it,” he said.

Since the Lacrosse fire in Docklands in 2014, the Victorian Building Authority has audited about 260 buildings mostly in the central city but hand-balled major decisions about their safety to council building surveyors.

The Andrews government is under increasing pressure to step in and ensure the state's buildings are safe.

To date, the VBA has found six buildings that will need to be stripped of cladding or have other works done. Action is also likely on a further 17 CBD properties.

VBA chief executive Prue Digby said the authority could not yet be sure of the scale of the problem across Victoria.

“We can only extrapolate from the results of the audits that we have done to date, so the short answer is we can't tell how many buildings are impacted in terms of non-compliance across Victoria,” Ms Digby said.

Aluminium composite panels have been widely installed in Australia for about 30 years – leading some to speculate they are on thousands of buildings.

Ms Digby, who is stepping down as chief executive in October, said any delays in disciplinary hearings were out of the control of the VBA as it had handed over its briefs to the Building Practitioners Board early last year. 

She said Victoria had not been given the credit it deserved for its cladding audit.

“Ok, it was generated by the Lacrosse fire, but we moved very quickly after those findings came out to launch this audit process. It was the first national audit of its kind that has ever been conducted,” she said.

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