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Cladding issue is going nowhere fast

14 Dec 2017

Cladding issue is going nowhere fast Image

By Shane Scanlan

The state government is refining ways to detect flammable cladding and prevent more being installed on buildings in the future, but is doing nothing to determine who should pay for such re-work.

On December 1, it released the Victorian Cladding Taskforce’s interim report. But the taskforce is yet to turn its attention to questions of responsibility and liability, without which, no cladding may actually be forcibly replaced.

In the past month, the builders of the Lacrosse and Exo towers in Docklands have agreed to replace cladding.

But, significantly, both builders – LU Simon and Lendlease – have volunteered to do the work without admitting liability. In the Lacrosse case, LU Simon has specifically not agreed to pay for the work and its legal battles roll on.

It’s been more than three years since the fire that tore up the side of Lacrosse, resulting in the evacuation of more than 400 residents.

Building orders issued by the City of Melbourne (CoM) shortly after have been in legal dispute ever since and, as reported last month, the matter is not due back in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) until late next year.

LU Simon is separately challenging in the Supreme Court the Victorian Building Authority’s (VBA) powers to direct it to fix six other inner city buildings.

The government established the Victorian Cladding Taskforce in response to the tragic Grenfell fire in London in June. It is co-chaired by former premier Ted Baillieu and former ALP minister John Thwaites.

At that time, the VBA and CoM were working through their own audit, which revealed 83 buildings for further examination. In June, agreed-solutions had been found for all but 17.

That list still has 14 buildings on it, which the City of Melbourne refuses to reveal to protect property values.

The Victorian Cladding Taskforce has piloted an audit methodology and has already come up with about 1400 buildings it believes as “most likely having Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) with a polyethylene (PE) core or Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)”.

The taskforce was critical of the earlier joint VBA/CoM audit and recommends an independent review of this work.

In turn, the government is critical of the VBA and has ordered it to “lift its game” and audit the whole state and also become a feared presence on building sites, much the same as WorkSafe inspectors have become.

But the question has to be asked: If the VBA starts issuing more building orders, won’t that just mean more work for the courts in the absence of clearer definitions of liability?

The taskforce report reveals that, in 91 per cent of cases identified by the VBA, the designers had actually specified combustible materials. So demanding rework from builders would appear grossly unfair.

Roles and responsibilities for building inspection and enforcement are equally blurred between municipal and state authorities, as evidenced by the apparent difficulties the council and VBA have in working together. Will this improve or worsen when a state building inspector is appointed, as directed by building minister Richard Wynne? And, there is also the murky depths of defining the liability of private building inspectors and how they are insured (or not!).

Under the current law, building orders must be made against individual owners, an unworkable situation in world of strata living.

Owners’ corporations are rightly nervous about their liability too – particularly in the current political climate where the state government refuses to legislatively restore the rights that the courts have recently stripped from them.

Added to all this, is also a growing belief that governments are over-reaching on this issue.

Consultant engineer Neil McClelland told an owners’ corporation “Chairpersons’ Lounge” event on November 22 that much unnecessary re-work and soaring insurance premiums were likely.

He pointed to the impracticality of some new testing regimes. One new test, he said was conducted at a temperature above which aluminium itself melts.

Another future consequence, he said, could be water leaking through facades.

In Victoria Harbour, Lendlease is preparing to replace the white decorative screen around the Exo building. The work will be done progressively over coming months.

The construction methodology means the building will be effectively unwrapped.


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