On June 14, in a block of flats in London, a refrigerator on the fourth floor caught fire. The blaze should have been contained within the unit, but instead it took 60 hours to extinguish. Almost 24 storeys were transformed into a blackened shell and at least 80 people lost their lives.
A wide-ranging public investigation is still to be carried out, but experts believe that the building’s flammable cladding enabled the fire to spread rapidly up the exterior. The building in question had an Aluminium Composite panel cladding that has been touted as a fantastic insulator and constructed using two aluminium sheets, or skins, with an insulating core sandwiched between. However, the composition of the core has proved critical. Manufacturers offer two different versions of the cladding, one with a plastic core and the other with a mineral core. The plastic filled version, if ignited, becomes fuel for the fire whereas the mineral core is considered less flammable.
It has become apparent that the plastic core products have been used on the exterior of high-rise buildings not only in the UK but in Australia and across the world.
In August 2017, a building in Dubai caught fire for the second time (the first in 2015). Reports seem to suggest that in both incidents, the combustible cladding had a major effect on the spread and the size of the fire.
In November 2014, a fire started in a building in Melbourne’s Docklands by a dropped cigarette. The fire raced up the exterior of the building and was said to be fuelled by the flammable cladding. Thankfully no lives were lost, thanks to the extensive sprinkler system installed inside the building.
At the time, experts attempted to warn that a mass-fatality was possible unless the cladding issue was tackled. Thousands of buildings across Australia are thought to contain similar materials, but the response to these warnings was weak.
In the wake of this year’s tragedy in the UK, the issue has made headlines across the world and finally the politicians are interested. In Australia, Prime Minister Turnbull has asked premiers and chief ministers to conduct audits, and all jurisdictions have responded. NSW has announced a 10-point plan and Victoria has created a taskforce to investigate the issue. The Senate inquiry into non-conforming building products has widened, requesting additional submissions on the cladding issue and holding public hearings in Melbourne and Sydney.
The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) submission to the Senate inquiry warns that flammable cladding could force premiums up, or even result in cover being refused. It recommends a national approach to enforce an audit of buildings to quantify the current level of exposure.
Australian fire regulations are relatively stringent, and sprinklers are required in buildings higher than 25m, so it is unlikely that Australia will have a Grenfell-style mass fatality. However, there is a chance that those sprinkler systems will fail and buildings below 25m are exposed.
So how do we minimise the risk and how do you recognise the combustible cladding? Without a copy of the building plans, it seems the only way to be sure your building isn’t at risk is to have external cladding tested.
Reference: Insurance News Magazine (August/September 2017 Issue) – Time to Act by John Deex Brokerwise Issue Three 2017 – Combustible Cladding