Why an Aussie high-rise blaze is more likely than not
By Jimmy Thomson
15 June 2017

A perfect storm of shoddy building practices, the fear and ignorance of apartment residents and a history of pro-developer politics means a high-rise building blaze like the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London is almost inevitable here in Australia.

With new apartment buildings defects often including missing or faulty fire dampers, there are very real concerns that tens of thousands of Australian high-rises could be at risk if they have cheap imported aluminium cladding on their walls.

you have a recipe for imminent disaster

Add overcrowding, illegal internal room division and sloppy resident behaviour (like fire doors being chocked open and smoke alarms being disabled) and you have a recipe for imminent disaster.

But how could this be the case more than two years after the Lacrosse building blaze in Melbourne, where composite cladding of the type suspected of being instrumental in the London inferno is known to have accelerated the spread of a balcony fire?

Is anyone in authority even paying attention?

And then there’s Bankstown blaze five years ago in which one female student died and another was seriously injured when they had to jump from a high window to escape? Is anyone in authority even paying attention?

The Lacrosse deadlock is a perfect example of the conflicting interests between owners, builders and politicians resulting in zero action when an urgent response is required.

In January this year the Victorian Buildings Appeals Board ordered the apartment owners to strip the remaining cladding off the 21-storey building as it presented a significant fire risk.

Yes, that’s right, more than two years after the fire, action is ordered. Even so, no timeframe was established so the cladding remains.

Why? Well, the owners are collectively suing the builders for the $15 million it cost for repairs and to replace the cladding. But their case is not helped by Melbourne City council officials saying the building is safe to be occupied … provided residents remove excessive clutter from their balconies.

continued over-crowding

Have the residents done so? Not according to Fairfax media reports that also revealed continued over-crowding in the building due to, for instance, lounge rooms being rented as bedrooms.

narrow self-interest and political impotence

It’s this kind of narrow self-interest and political impotence that puts people’s lives at risk.  It won’t be the apartment owners, city councillors or developers running for their lives if the Lacrosse goes up in flames again. It will be the students forced to live in conditions so overcrowded that they have to store their stuff on their balconies.

Reports that complaints of poor management of the Grenfell block in London – including a petition signed by 90 percent of residents but ignored by authorities – will have a familiar ring to apartment dwellers here who have struggled to navigate the swamp of dodgy developers, incompetent managers, an often impotent consumer protection regime, cost-obsessed apartment owners and bizarre Tribunal decisions.

Historically, politicians across Australia have been reluctant to do anything that might deter developers from building new apartment blocks. That has led at various times to the farce of self-certification and the removal of compulsory building insurance from buildings over three storeys high.

After the Lacrosse Docklands fire, a parliamentary committee was warned that firefighters’ lives were at risk from the prevalence of cheap aluminium cladding.  Photo: Supplied

Only last week the NSW government pushed back to next year the implementation of the bond designed to protect purchasers of defective apartments. The defects bond of 2 per cent of a building’s cost, was due to come in on July 1, six months after other changes to strata laws.

current owners often don’t want to know about problems

At the other end of the scale, there is a “next guy” culture in Strataland where current owners often don’t want to know about problems that might cost them money or affect the value of their property—hoping the next guy who buys their unit can foot any bills.

So the incentive for apartment owners to establish if the cladding on their building is safe is severely tempered by the probability that they and not the developer or builder will have to pay for its replacement.

For while the law in most states allows builders and developers to walk away from defective projects as little as two years after completion, apartment owners have no choice once the defect has been identified. They must maintain and repair common property regardless of the cost and for as long as the building is standing.

No surprise then that few if any strata committees are rushing to discover if their cladding is the cheap imported variety, even if they are gambling with their own or their tenants’ lives.

That’s one reason Senator Nick Xenophon has been calling for an audit of buildings to see how many have the suspect cladding installed.

But what then? Can we really expect apartment owners to raise millions of dollars in special levies to cover the replacement of cladding they bought in the reasonable assumption it was safe?

Do we really expect developers to blithely accept they shouldn’t have saved money on cheaper cladding and pay for its replacement? Many will just shut up shop and “phoenix” into another entity, with the same directors, rather than pay up.

If expert opinions on the spread and seriousness of building defects are to be believed, and the collective inertia of strata politics, from strata committees to government ministers, prevails, the next ‘towering inferno’ headlines you read could be about your apartment block.

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