The Grenfell Tower fire was started by a malfunctioning fridge-freezer on the fourth floor, which spread rapidly up the building’s exterior, spreading fire and smoke to the other residential floors. The rapid spread of the fire was due to the building’s cladding, external insulation and air gap between that enabled the stack effect.
The Grenfell Tower incident highlighted the dangers of using flammable materials for external cladding, prompting governments from all over the world, including Australia, to review their building codes and initiate a massive inspection of existing buildings for fire safety risks.
What Is Cladding?
Cladding is like the outside skin of a building and is part of the passive fire protection system. It is designed to provide thermal insulation and weather resistance to the building. The external cladding also improves the appearance of buildings.
There are several types and brands of cladding available, but there are two particular types of combustible cladding that are dangerous for building occupants and the community more broadly. These dangerous claddings are:
- aluminium composite panels or ACP
- expanded polystyrene or EPS
When a fire occurs, these materials will increase the rate at which a fire spreads instead of containing it. They pose an increased risk to the building residents and those in the immediate vicinity.
Other Cladding-Related Fire Incidents
The Grenfell Tower fire is not the only incident that woke us up to the dangers of combustible claddings. Before this, Melbourne had a cladding-related fire at the Lacrosse building in 2014. This incident led the Victorian Building Authority to do an audit of external wall cladding on buildings. In 2019, a fire also broke at the Neo200 building on Spencer Street in the Melbourne CBD which the witnesses described as leaping from balcony to balcony.
All these incidents brought attention to the combustible cladding as the country grapples to rectify thousands of buildings, homes, offices, hospitals, and factories that have been found to be covered in the material.
In Victoria, around 800 private buildings were found to have dangerous cladding on some or all their exterior after more than 1670 were audited by the building authority. Over 350 buildings in Melbourne were also rated as “high risk”.
In NSW, the NSW Cladding Taskforce was created to identify buildings with potentially combustible cladding and help local councils to address the use of non-compliant cladding materials. As of February 2021, the Taskforce has audited 185,000 building records and inspected 4127 buildings. 375 buildings are in progress to be cleared.
A bill has also been submitted before the Senate to ban the importation, sale and use of some ACPs in Australia.
My building has combustible cladding, what to do?
If your building has been found to have combustible cladding, the risk of fire, loss of life, and serious damage won’t go away until it is removed or other fire protection solutions, such as fire dampers and fire doors, are put in place. It is very expensive to remove and replace external cladding . Replacing the cladding on Melbourne’s Lacrosse building reportedly cost more than $15 million. The retrofitting of alternate solutions may be disruptive and costly also.
If you’re a tenant, you might want to find review your lease agreement to know what your rights are in case the building is damaged because of combustible cladding. You also need to check whether you have the right to stop paying rent if the building owner plans to replace any building materials.
If you own the building, go through your building contracts and insurance policies to know what your current risks may be. If you think combustible cladding has been used on your building, report it to both your insurer and the cladding taskforce.