Lacrosse tower builder refuses to replace illegal flammable cladding, challenges owners to court battle
The Age
Liam Mannix
23 March 2016

The builder of the Lacrosse tower in Docklands is refusing to remove combustible cladding from the building's  facade without an expensive fight in the courts.

A smouldering cigarette

A smouldering cigarette on a sixth-floor balcony sparked a fire in the early hours of November 25, 2014, which raced up 13 floors of the building in only 11 minutes. An investigation by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade found that the cladding material, imported from China, does not meet Australian standards and should never have been used on a high rise apartment.

Despite an order from the city council, the builder wants to leave the facade in place and install sprinklers to put out any fire that does erupt.

Lacrosse tower apartment owners now face a tough choice: leave the cladding in place and accept the sprinklers or fight the builder in court.

Fire engulfs the Lacrosse building. Photo: MFB

Any   dispute over responsibility for the cost of fire-proofing could act as a precedent for the thousand or so other buildings in Australia found to be covered in the non-compliant cladding.

The Fire Brigade put blame for the blaze's spread squarely on the cheap cladding, which CSIRO testing has found to be highly flammable.

The City Council has demanded the building be made compliant with Australian building standards  by replacing the cladding with an alternative  that meets Australian standards.

behavioural change solution

Fairfax Media understands that builder LU Simon initially proposed a behavioural change solution, in which residents of Lacrosse would be banned from storing items on the building's balconies, and building overcrowding would be managed.

That proposal was knocked back by the city council, a decision immediately appealed by LU Simon.

If that appeal is unsuccessful, the 312 owners of apartments in the tower essentially have two other options.

offered to install sprinklers

LU Simon has offered to install sprinklers on the balconies to extinguish any fire that occurs, at no cost to the home owners. The sprinkler solution has gone to the city council for approval.

The second option, full removal of the cladding, will require the owners corporation to pay upfront to have the cladding removed and replaced before attempting to recoup their loss by suing LU Simon for compensation.

"LU Simon are of the view that they haven't done anything wrong," Fraser Main, the group managing director of Trevor Main, Lacrosse's facility manager, said. "They don't want to accept formal liability. They are a financially strong and reasonably well established company. They know if they get an outcome that's compliant, it may well cost them less than the legal fees to fight a battle."

more than a thousand buildings

Half of Melbourne's newest high-rises are covered with non-compliant cladding, and there are estimates more than a thousand buildings Australia-wide could be compromised.

Colin Grace, a senior partner at body-corporate law specialists Grace Lawyers, suspects LU Simon is fighting so hard because it is aware the case may set a precedent.

Mr Grace believes if LU Simon's appeal fails, Lacrosse's owners corporation would have a very good chance of extracting compensation in the courts.

Fairfax Media understands several law firms have already worked through simulated legal actions against builders in the case that LU Simon's appeal fails.

A spokesperson for LU Simon said: "We are working with relevant parties to try to resolve these issues. Whilst these processes are under way, and particularly until the separate investigations have concluded, it is inappropriate to comment further."


Lacrosse tower fire: owners seek $15 million repair bill from builders
The Age
Aisha Dow
26 December 2016

Owners of the Lacrosse tower are claiming more than $15 million from L.U. Simon Builders, saying combustible cladding installed on the apartment complex by the construction company was responsible for the spread of a major blaze.

Fairfax Media has obtained details of the damage bill following the 2014 fire at the Docklands building, and details of an ongoing case between the builder and owners of at least 140 apartments.

Work fixing damaged units has already cost more than $6.5 million, including almost $700,000 to dry out the building, according to documents filed with the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal.

And it is estimated that it will cost another $8.6 million to remove and replace the remaining unburnt cladding, to comply with a Melbourne City Council order.

More than 400 people were evacuated from 673 La Trobe Street on November 25, 2014, when a discarded cigarette on a balcony started a fire that very quickly spread up the face of the building.

No one was injured, but the Metropolitan Fire Brigade has said it was lucky no one was killed.

Afterwards, an investigation by the fire brigade found that the building's cladding material, imported from China, should never have been used. The incident also exposed widespread problems with building construction standards in Victoria.

the builder's defence

However, L.U. Simon is defending against claims from the affected owners, saying it should not be held responsible for the fire and subsequent damage because the blaze was caused by careless disposal of a cigarette and spread as a result of materials stored on the balcony.

Clothes airing on balconies helped fuel the fire at the Lacrosse building

It said its design plans had been approved by a building surveyor, fire engineer and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, which "gave approval for the building including variations from specific requirements of the [Building Code of Australia], subject to certain recommendations being satisfied".

Cladding like the Alucobest brand used on the Lacrosse tower had been used across Australia for at least 40 years, it said.

"Until the fire incident on 25 November 2014, it was standard practice in the industry to use aluminium composite panels on the external walls of buildings not just in Melbourne CBD and all suburbs, but across all the states and territories in Australia," court documents say.

"The Alucobest panels are marketed and sold internationally as a product suitable for use on the external cladding of buildings including high rise residential and commercial buildings."

The Building Appeals Board is set to make a ruling soon on whether the combustible cladding will have to be removed.

In the meantime, lawyers for the owners are claiming almost $1 million in lost rent, money spent on emergency accommodation during the fire emergency and compensation for an increase in insurance premiums since the blaze – which have jumped almost $140,000 since 2013.

balcony clutter remains a danger

The Melbourne City Council says the Lacrosse building is now safe to occupy, but only if balconies are kept clear of excessive clutter, which has remained a recurring problem at the tower.

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