Victoria’s building regulator has announced every high-rise built in Melbourne’s CBD and inner suburbs in the past decade will be inspected for cheap, imported non-compliant cladding found to be flammable.
The Victorian Building Association’s audit of 170 buildings follows recent findings that non-compliant aluminium cladding imported from China fuelled the rapid spread of a major fire in a Lacrosse tower in Docklands last year.
But removing and replacing flammable cladding could be an expensive and lengthy process that would pose a number of significant challenges for engineers.
There is also confusion whether construction companies, developers or apartment owners are responsible for ensuring buildings with non-compliant cladding do not pose a significant fire risk.
Engineering experts say the cost of replacing cladding would vary depending on the number of panels and their location.
Melbourne-based facade engineer Richard Drzewucki said cladding on a building’s facade would be difficult to access.
“When the building was built you had a nice tower crane helping you and all of a sudden you’ve got nothing,” Mr Drzewucki said .
One option would be to install scaffolding around the building’s exterior, which is not only time-consuming but labour-intensive.
Further complicating matters, issues surrounding tenancy, traffic and equipment would need to be worked through.
David Fung from the engineering consultancy group AECOM said the potential problem was not restricted to Victoria, as aluminium composite cladding had been widely used around the country for decades.
“It is an issue that is going to have impacts across the rest of the country,” he said.
The Fire Protection Association of Australia has warned the number of properties constructed with the non-compliant cladding could run into the tens of thousands.
The possibility of a class action in the case of the Lacrosse building has also raised questions about who will bear the cost of replacing the combustible cladding, with law firm Slater and Gordon representing about 150 owners and residents.
The firm’s Ben Hardwick has said there is potential for claims worth millions of dollars to be lodged against Victorian builders regarding the expenses to be incurred by replacing non-compliant cladding with material that is safe.
It is likely apartment owners could foot the bill initially, and then seek compensation.
Joseph Genco, the municipal building surveyor for the Melbourne City Council, told an industry seminar last Tuesday he expected to finish inspecting the Lacrosse tower apartments by the end of this week.
He said because owners corporations were not really an entity in their own right, show-cause notices would be issued to the 328 owners within the building, who would have to either replace the cladding or prove that their apartment was safe.
Mr Genco said owners could engage a fire engineer to investigate alternative solutions.
Joseph Keller, spokesman for the Fire Protection Association of Australia, said it was “inappropriate” that the legislation allowed the onus to be put on individual apartment owners to ensure their property was not a fire risk.