When you're undertaking a rebuild or even starting from scratch, it pays to know where your materials are made. Recent investigations into the Lacrosse Residential Apartment Building fire in Docklands, Melbourne in 2014 found that the cladding material was imported from China and was not tested to Australian standards. These investigations sparked a Senate inquiry into the current regulatory framework for imported building products.
The inquiry is seeking to come up with possible improvements to the framework for ensuring compliance with Australian standards. It will look into enforcing existing regulations more strictly, better screening of imported products and coming up with an independent verification and assessment system. The report will be published by 12 October 2015, so it remains to be seen what recommendations will be made.
In the interim, business owners should be aware of the risks involved in using non-compliant building materials.
Cheaper imported materials fail to meet Australian standards
In the past few years building materials imported from China have made headlines for all the wrong reasons. These include the insulation batts scheme where some caught fire and took four lives, an $11 million glass façade that wouldn’t shatter safely, combustible electrical cabling and more recently, fire-prone external cladding.
The use of cladding materials in the last ten years has been widespread, due both to the demand for high-rise buildings and to the product's multifaceted use for insulation, improved rigidity and cosmetic purposes. Following the Docklands fire, the Fire Protection Association of Australia warned that builders across the country are importing Chinese cladding material which has not been tested to Australian standards.
The issue is not limited to cladding. The glass, structural steel and manufactured timber sectors are also having to fight for business from cheaper rival products that don't measure up to the required standard. Lack of regulatory enforcement is taking the blame.
However, the root of the issue is not just a lack of regulatory enforcement. Local builders are cutting corners to save costs and creating a demand for these non-compliant products.
Business owners should take precautionary measures
The responsibility for purchasing building materials is, in most cases, that of the builder or project manager, depending on the size of the works. While your builder will assure you that the products are compliant, it's difficult to know for certain until it's too late.
Business owners should ensure that safety measures within their control are in place to prevent or reduce damage occurring. Precautionary measures such as fire doors, fire retardant windows, exit lighting, sprinkler systems and smoke alarms should all be operational. These measures will need to be taken in order to obtain fire safety certification. This could also save time, money and lives if the unfortunate occurs.
The Building Code of Australia, in conjunction with state legislation and local council enforcement, ensures that building owners submit annual fire safety statements. Business owners who do not own their premises should contact the building owner or their landlord and ensure that compliance is up to date.
The problematic reality is that the defect in the materials is not readily apparent until, for example, a fire ignites. Once this has happened, there may be limited or no recourse to the builders, developers and certifiers if they can't be found by the time such an event occurs.
Business owners should ensure that their insurers are aware when construction is planned, as insurers may undertake inspections of their insured buildings to determine whether the materials used are appropriate and conform to relevant standards.
Prevention is the best cure and business owners should ensure that they remain vigilant. Only retain the services of registered builders and tradesmen and don't be tempted to cut corners. Make sure all of the building materials used in your refurbishment meet the Australian standard, bearing in mind that cutting costs today could cost you much more tomorrow.
Landis Michaels is a lawyer in
the Sydney office of
Colin Biggers & Paisley.