Thursday October 22 2015

The Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s (MFB’s) investigation of a fire at a Docklands apartment building in November 2014 found that the use of Alucobest-branded aluminium composite panel (ACP) on the building’s external walls contributed to the spread of the fire.

The cladding did not comply with the National Construction Code (NCC), which provides the minimum necessary requirements for safety, health, amenity and sustainability in the design and construction of new buildings (and new building work in existing buildings) throughout Australia.

Following these findings, the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) has taken several actions in relation to the use of cladding that does not comply with the NCC. This includes using the VBA’s coercive powers to audit 170 building permits relating to building work on high-rise buildings in central Melbourne and immediate surrounding suburbs issued in the past 10 years.

VBA’s audit into external wall cladding

As part of the External Wall Cladding Audit (Audit), the VBA required builders and building surveyors to provide evidence of the type of external wall cladding used, in order to assess if the cladding complies with the NCC.

To date, preliminary findings from the Audit indicate that several brands of ACP have been used for cladding the external walls of public and residential buildings in central Melbourne and immediate surrounding suburbs. However, apart from the Docklands apartment building, the use of the Alucobest-branded product has only been identified in two buildings to date. These two buildings, which the relevant builder reported directly to the VBA, are listed in the online table of Audit findings.

Aluminum composite panels

ACP is a multi-layered building product containing a core material sandwiched between aluminium sheets, typically 4mm – 6mm thick. These materials are glued to form a laminated product.

ACP is commonly used by designers and builders worldwide as feature panels or lining to provide a decorative finish to the external walls of buildings. In most cases, this use of ACP complies with the requirements of the NCC.

ACP is considered to be non-compliant when it has not been used as required by the NCC.  ACP may not comply with the NCC if it is used as a structural element (as opposed to decorative) of an external wall on a residential or public building that is three or more storeys tall.

If the Audit finds that the use of ACP does not comply with the NCC, the VBA informs the local Municipal Building Surveyor (MBS) who has the power to inspect and declare a building safe or not safe to occupy. If necessary, the MBS will then take action to ensure the longer-term safe occupation of the building.

Safe occupation of buildings

It is important to note that ‘non-compliant’ does not necessarily mean the building is unsafe to occupy.

A number of safety features in buildings protect occupants from fire. If a building has ACP that does not comply with the NCC, it may still be considered safe to occupy because of the presence of these safety features, which may include:

  • early-warning systems (alarms) connected to fire and smoke detectors
  • evacuation pathways protected from fire and smoke
  • automatic fire sprinkler systems
  • construction of internal walls to prevent the spread of fire and smoke within the building
  • construction materials to limit the spread of fire.

These safety features alert occupants early, protect them from fire and smoke during evacuation and help limit the spread of fire between apartments. They are designed so that if one part of the system fails, occupants are still protected by the remaining safety features. There are also automated alert systems that notify the fire services of an alarm.

At a glance

The preliminary findings from the VBA’s Audit indicate that:

  • ACPs are often used on external walls of building projects for decorative purposes such as feature panels, awnings or shade louvres
  • no single building practitioner group is consistently responsible for the use of ACP that does not comply with the NCC – everyone in the chain has a role to play
  • decisions made by different practitioners at different stages of the building process have contributed to ACP being used in ways that do not comply with the NCC
  • there appears to have been an inconsistent understanding among the building industry of the requirements of the NCC in relation to the use of ACP.

Where it is identified that a registered building practitioner has breached the requirements of building regulations and the NCC, the practitioner may be subject to disciplinary action and/or prosecution, depending upon the nature and extent of the breach.

Audit of cladding on high rise buildings

Source: VBA Website