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Owners face huge bills to fix apartment fire risk

Apartment Fire Risk
Credit: Nicole Garmston

It’s impossible to forget what happened in London last June.  As residents slept, their building – the 24 storey Grenfell Tower – caught fire, and the massive blaze cost 71 innocent lives. This week, seven months later, the horrific event struck another devastating blow with the death of one of the survivors who has been in hospital since the tragedy.

DANGEROUS CLADDING UNDER SCRUTINY

Afterwards, it was the building’s cladding that came under scrutiny, as experts mused that a higher quality material may have prevented the fire from spreading so catastrophically.

The cladding was made with Reynobond PE – made of Reynolux-coated aluminium sheets over a highly flammable Reynobond polyethylene core.

Dr Roth Phylaktou, an expert in fire investigation, said: “The polyethylene in the cladding would have burnt as quickly as petrol.”

But now, it’s cladding on residential apartment buildings in Victoria that is under the spotlight.

In fact, that spotlight has been on Victoria since the 2014 fire in the Lacrosse tower.  Apartment owners pursued the builders for $15 million, claiming it was combustible cladding that caused the fire to spread so rapidly from a discarded cigarette on a balcony to become an enormous blaze.

No one was hurt, but an investigation showed that the Chinese cladding should not have been used – and that triggered a wider conversation about construction standards throughout Victoria.


Read more: Cladding


1000 VICTORIAN BUILDINGS AT RISK

It was found that well over 1000 apartment towers in Victoria may have similarly worrying cladding, with the Strata Community Association saying the million dollar costs of removing and replacing it should be borne by the apartment construction companies rather than the owners.

The City of Melbourne and the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) agreed, and in late November last year Lacrosse developer LU Simon announced that it will replace the cladding by mid-2018.

But the VBA vowed to go further by actually compelling builders to go back to buildings that have been long since completed and fix dodgy cladding in order to prevent more fires in the future.

It’s no surprise that the developers pushed back, arguing not only that it would knock on to issues of insurance and liability, but threaten the viability of the entire industry.  Indeed, LU Simon decided to challenge the VBU’s authority to instruct it to fix six other completed buildings in Victoria.

About 2,500 residents live and work in those six buildings, including the huge 49-storey Verve 501, the 36-storey Atlantis Tower, and the 21-storey Guilfoyle apartments in Southbank.

DEVELOPER WINS CASE AGAINST VBA

The Supreme Court agreed with LU Simon.  The VBA had argued that it should be able to order building fixes even “100 years after” construction was complete, but the court found that authority should be confined only to the construction phase.

Justice Cavanough said LU Simon was right in arguing that if retrospective powers were granted to the VBA, it could mean business people who had nothing to do with dodgy construction were held formally responsible for it.

Crucially, the ruling could leave the VBA as somewhat of a toothless tiger when it comes to ordering fixes, as even apartment owners can hold builders responsible for defects for up to 10 years after completion.  The Victorian government disagrees with that, saying it is “confident” the VBA is still fully empowered to keep residents safe.


Read more: VIC Strata


OWNERS COULD FACE $60,000 CLADDING BILLS

But apartment owners may still be vulnerable.  Right now, they can be legally ordered to leave an unsafe building and not return until the problem is fixed.  It doesn’t mean they can’t argue that the architect or builder should actually foot the bill to fix the apartment fire risk, but that will only be decided on a case by case basis.

A building defects expert estimated that the cost of fixing dangerous cladding could cost individual apartment owners up to $60,000.  It is believed some builders have helped apartment owners out by doing voluntary fixes, but this group will likely remain in the minority.

Strata Community Association chief executive Erik Adriaanse said: “It is an unacceptable outcome for owners to have to decide between crippling themselves financially and making their buildings safe.

“We’re imploring federal government leaders to pull out the cheque book and provide some assistance,” he added.

This is no quick fix to the potential apartment fire risk. Stay tuned!

About the author

Andrew Maitland

Andrew Maitland

Andrew is a professional journalist, writer and copywriter with close to two decades of experience. He has thousands of published works and is a head contributor for Strataville.

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