Many strata buildings constructed since the 1990s contain some form of external cladding. It was and remains a popular choice given its aesthetic appeal, sound and thermal properties and ease of application.
However, the Lacrosse Building fire in Melbourne in 2014 and the Grenfell Tower disaster in London in 2017 lay bare the consequences arising from the use of external combustible and poor fire-resistant cladding materials, particularly when they sandwich highly flammable and combustible core materials that ignite easily and burn rapidly.
Updated laws relating to external combustible cladding
The Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Identification of Buildings with External Combustible Cladding) Regulation 2018 (NSW) (Amendment Regulation) came into effect on 22 October 2018. It requires affected residential and public buildings occupied before 22 October 2018 to be registered through the NSW Cladding Registration portal.
New buildings must be registered within four months of the building first being occupied.
Interestingly, at this stage, the portal is not publicly available to search. A buyer interested in purchasing in an affected building must rely on owners corporation records and (if permitted by the strata scheme) engage an appropriate building consultant and potentially (if permitted by the owners corporation) test the material that surrounds a unit.
What can strata managers and owners corporations do?
Understandably, external combustible cladding is an issue of concern for strata managers and owners corporations given the increased risk of fire and the potential need and cost of removal or replacement.
If you have not already done so, strata managers and owners corporations should take all steps to assess the fire risk arising from external combustible cladding and identify where the external combustible cladding materials are located.
However, until it is identified and confirmed, what can be done to manage and mitigate the risk of external combustible cladding?
The Lacrosse Building fire was caused by a cigarette that was not put out properly on a balcony.
External combustible cladding installed around balconies and entry foyers saw the fire spread up 13 storeys – from balcony to balcony – in 10 minutes.
A no smoking by-law, prohibiting smoking on balconies or outside common foyers of a building will reduce the overall risk of fire. A more stringent step would be to only permit smoking indoors or in designated smoking areas outside the building.
Obstruction of common property
One of the reasons there were so many casualties of the Grenfell Tower disaster was the obstruction of common property. There were several items in common hallways that obstructed the free passage of residents to lower floors when the fire broke out. Strengthening the no-obstruction of common property by-law has the potential to mitigate risk in the case of an emergency.
Restrict fire hazards
It is not unusual for strata schemes to restrict the type of furniture that can reside on balconies. This is usually to retain the aesthetic appeal of a building. However, this could also be an opportunity for strata schemes to prevent flammable and/or combustible items being stored on balconies.
Prohibiting the use of barbeques, gas lamps and other flammable materials, such as artificial plants or fake grass, on balconies greatly minimises the risk of fire spreading between apartments or floors.
While these suggestions do not address the issue of external combustible cladding or the costs associated with its removal or replacement, they may assist in managing and mitigating risk until remedial action can be taken.
REINSW thanks Daniela Terruso and JS Mueller & Co for their contribution to this article.