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
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.
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
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.
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
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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