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Grenfell Tower tragedy: A new benchmark for safer building with Cladding


Tragedy

The aftermath from London’s tragic Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed 80 lives, has spread further concern and questions regarding building compliance rules and regulations.

With the federal government intending to implement tougher penalties for those builders who install cladding similar to that used in the construction of Grenfell Tower, there is greater accountability for property owners and managers to ensure their properties are constructed with quality materials to regulation requirements.

At the time of the incident, flammable panels being identified as the primary cause of the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire left many people shocked, but in reality risks associated with the panels has been well known previously.

Cladding as a catalyst

So, why were these panels so dangerous? Composite or sandwich panels usually consist of two metal facings bonded to a central insulating core, to form a sandwich-like structure. The result is a strong, highly insulated panel, which can be installed one on top of another to quickly build a large construction with an increased thermal efficiency. However in the event of a fire, these panels melt and collapse and in many instances can act as an accelerant.

Further evidence of how flammable these panels were was witnessed in 2014 when a fire broke out in Melbourne’s Lacrosse Apartments, spreading over several floors in a matter of minutes due to similar combustible cladding.

Concern

These composite panels have been widely used over the past 25 years in construction and are now in various office, residential and construction buildings.

Insurers

Insurers globally are starting to address this by questioning property owners and mangers about property audits when policies come up for renewal.

According to Troy Bates, Aon’s Real Estate Practice Leader in Australia, while many composite panels used locally may comply with the Australian Building Code, they do pose a known and significant fire risk.

Brokers and insurers should be made aware of any cladding discovered during such audits. Failure to disclose these findings to the insurance underwriting process could cause a void in insurance coverage in the event of a fire.

For owner operators, bear in mind the likelihood that insurers may be increasingly reluctant to provide cover for buildings featuring combustible cladding.

The cost of similar fires that have caused damage to the building have resulted in claims reaching to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Risk Mitigation

Reducing the risk of fire spreading as a result of cladding if you are unable to immediately replace the panels is essential. Here are a few suggestions HIAIS recommend:

ENSURE

  • Proper protection for all site staff so that work is conducted safely by arranging the proper permits for supervisors.
  • Where possible, hot work areas (particularly the use of welding equipment) are kept to a minimum and away from cladding panels.
  • All lighting fittings that could be deemed high intensity are adequately covered and conduct regular checks on all lamps within insulated panel areas. Ideally these should be replaced shortly before the end of their life expectancy.
  • To keep electronic equipment at a distance of three metres from the insulated panels.
  • All battery charging units are stationed either away from any flammable areas or have a two hour fire rated barrier put in against the insulated panel.
  • To employ a thermographic scanner to recognise areas that are reading high for electrical hot spots.
  • Any perforations are sealed in the panels.
  • Hydraulic packs are fitted and packaged with automatic shut off devices.

AVOID

  • Installing electrical switchboards into the insulated panels.
  • Installing combustible storage.
  • Installing generators of heat or any heat service that carries exhaust gases (flues, pipes, ducts) through insulated panels.
  • Any flammable gases or liquids from the vicinity.

Both the Melbourne and London fires serve as a stark reminder of the tragedies that can unfold as a result of fire and the importance of the discussion around regularly reviewing and regulating the use of building materials.

HIAIS will follow the developments around updates to regulation and update our members accordingly.

 

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