The Queensland Government is cracking down on combustible building cladding, following the Grenfell Tower fire in London and the discovery that the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane is clad in a similarly combustible material.
The new Audit Taskforce is Queensland’s response to Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull’s call for States to ensure buildings meet Australian standards for fire safety. 44 buildings in Queensland – 23 government owned and 21 privately held – are undergoing compliance checks.
While no other cases of non-compliant cladding have been found in the month since the taskforce launched, wider reviews could uncover many more; investigations after the 2014 Lacrosse fire in Melbourne revealed up to 170 non-compliant high-rises.
If you are concerned about your building’s compliance, you may want to consider following the points below to minimise your exposure to risk of legal or financial repercussions.
Ensure you are adhering to all fire compliance orders (See On-Site Manager Fire Safety Companies)
The first step is to engage either a private inspector/engineer or relevant regulatory body to inspect your building.
Non-compliant cladding is not easy spot – even for the professionals – so make sure your inspector has the ability to identify any issues with cladding. Of particular interest should be any so-called “sandwich foam”, aesthetic or insulation panelling which consists of plastic foam sandwiched between aluminium sheets.
You will also need to ensure your smoke detectors, sprinkler and other safety systems are in order and up to spec.
It should be noted that although the PA Hospital is clad in combustible materials, its fire mitigation systems (i.e. sprinklers, etc.) are so comprehensive that the building isn’t itself classed as being at major fire risk.
QFES has released its Fire Safety Management Tool for Owner Occupiers here.
Seek legal advice early (See On-Site Manager Lawyers)
If a building is not up to code, the cost of remedying the issue could be devastating.
In the Lacrosse case it was the owners, not the builder or developer, who were deemed responsible for the remediation works (the case is however still being fought).
The repair and replacement bill after the Lacrosse incident is estimated at $15 million. Divided between around 400 owners, this is about $40-50,000 per lot – a significant sum.
Strata law dictates that Owners’ Corporations have a legal obligation to maintain and repair common property – unless the builder can be pursued under warranty (see the next section).
Similar cladding investigations are continuing in New South Wales and in Victoria, where 6 of 260 inspected buildings have had notices handed down so far.
As always, seek legal advice as early as possible.
Review your warranties
Owners can take action against builders or even the building surveyors who initially certified their property, either directly or through official regulatory channels like the Australian Building Certification Board (https://www.abcb.gov.au/) or your local building authority.
However if the builder’s warranty no longer applies, your options may be limited. This is especially relevant to Queensland owners, as the QBCC’s building warranties do not cover buildings over three storeys.
Importantly, if your building is not up to code, this will also impact your insurance.
Check with your insurance (See On-Site Manager Insurance Companies)
As mentioned above, if your inspection uncovers any instances of non-compliant materials, you are obliged to inform your insurer.
If your building is deemed to be unsafe or unfit for purpose, it will not be insurable until any known issues are resolved. Owners should be aware that under their duty of disclosure, they are required to notify their insurer if they discover anything that might affect the insurability of the property.
Again, it’s best to consult with a legal professional early in the process, as this will help you understand your options more clearly.
Consider informing building occupants
In terms of ethical obligations, you may also want to inform all residents of the building of any potential cladding or other safety issues your inspection discovers.
While this is not legally required in all cases, it should be considered despite the possibility of it affecting tenancy rates – or resale value.
Better safe than sorry!
Owners and managers could be forgiven for feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place with this issue. Unknowingly having non-compliant cladding is no crime, however it is their responsibility to ensure the safety of the building and its occupants. Better safe than sorry, after all.
The government‘s strong stance is likely a result of the same risk-averse thinking – not all so-called “combustible” cladding poses an imminent threat. The results of the University of Queensland’s initial tests on the PA Hospital’s cladding showed that it was “combustible” under certain conditions, though this does not mean it will spontaneously burst into flame.
Further tests are still underway in Victoria; the Senate committee will hand down its final report in October 2017.
According to Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Katarina Carrol, fire safety officers have inspected 19,000 commercial buildings throughout Queensland in the last year alone, with no major infringements found.
For more information, Queensland residents are encouraged to contact the Audit Taskforce via the QBCC on 139 333 or on the QFES website at www.qfes.qld.gov.au.