[+] No End in Sight for State’s Cladding Crisis


Almost six years after the deadly Grenfell tower fire in London—and nine years since the Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne—hundreds of residential buildings in NSW remain at risk from potentially combustible cladding.

Project Remediate, a state government scheme to replace the unsafe materials, has been under way since March 2021 but some industry insiders say the ball is not rolling fast enough.

Despite a purpose-built and state-funded taskforce unearthing almost 230 buildings deemed dangerous, just two properties have had their cladding removed and replaced with a safer alternative.

Sydney’s Strata Embassy director Ben Cabello says the speed of uptake appears to be impeded by a communication problem.

“The biggest issue is the two tiers of government really don’t seem to talk to each other. Councils don’t talk to the NSW government and vice versa. 

“Councils are usually all about fire safety, so if there is a risk then they’re going to apply pressure to do works within a certain timeframe, regardless of any assistance from Project Remediate,” he says.

A voluntary program, Project Remediate’s ultimate goal is to assess and replace flammable cladding for eligible residential buildings and offer owners corporations a 10-year interest-free loan.

According to the latest data from Project Remediate, 227 buildings in NSW were originally flagged as “high risk” after the establishment of the Combustible Cladding Register. 

Along with the two completed projects, 123 buildings have undergone comprehensive investigations—35 are undergoing preliminary design development, 50 are in the design completion phase and 19 have designs fully completed with tenders for construction work either under way or completed. 

A number of other buildings are being assessed for retrospective assistance.

Cabello says the delays are causing challenges for strata plans and individual owners.

“We’ve just had a client join the scheme and Project Remediate had its preferred builder do a building inspection in the first week of February—and there’s been no word since,” he says.

▲ The Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne in 2014.

“The owners’ corporation want to know what the findings were, and if they’re going to get an interest free loan or any government assistance.”

He says that hold-ups could create problems with insurance premiums and home values.

“There are units for sale in the building and we’ve also got insurance coming up, so everybody’s asking if the building has been accepted into the program or not,” Cabello says. 

“A month’s gone past without even seeing the report. It’s very slow moving.”

Despite the promise of a decade-long loan, Cabello says a building with an outstanding debt loses some of its shine.

“It’s not just the cost of the actual work and product, there are a lot of consultants getting paid along the way. 

“And without any certainty around whether you’re going to get a government loan at no interest or a subsidy, the cost is very much unknown.” 

So vendors and purchasers really have to negotiate some sort of discount to accommodate any special levy.

“It’s a bit of a fire sale. People don’t want to pay a huge special levy so they sell, but their property’s going to be discounted anyway.”

Strata Community Association (NSW) president Stephen Brell agrees it is uncharted territory for all parties.

“It’s difficult to say what impact this will have on purchase prices because it’s still relatively early days,” he says. 

“Buyers need to enter into a strata scheme with their eyes wide open and ask about any existing problems with the building. 

▲ Buyers in NSW have been warned to keep their eyes wide open.

“At least if you buy into a building that’s gone through Project Remediate you have some sense of security.”

Despite the slow pace, Brell says Project Remediate is getting results.

“I’m actually pleasantly surprised with the numbers coming back from the Building Commissioner’s Office. 

“I know out in the marketplace the sentiment is that is is moving very slowly, and it is, but it’s not an easy fix.”

An Office of the NSW Building Commissioner spokesperson says there are a number of complexities to the process.

“Scoping remediation work accurately is challenging and owners’ corporations should be wary of any remediation quotes prepared without a detailed investigation of the underlying condition of the building,” the spokesperson says. 

“The building design, existing condition and site constraints can substantially alter the difficulty and cost of remediation.

“Construction costs continue to rise in response to reduced availability of materials and contractors due to global factors. 

“Project Remediate has assembled leading construction, engineering and fire safety experts to design a program that addresses all of these issues.”

As well as these cost blowouts, Cabello says individual buildings can also prove more costly.

“We’ve had larger buildings where the cladding in question is just a decorative trim so work will be minimal, but then there are smaller buildings where whole exteriors need to be replaced,” he says. 

“It’s not really the product that’s costly, because it’s cheap as chips, it’s the access. 

“If your building is landlocked you might need a crane or to block off streets.”

▲ No two remediation projects are the same, which means no standard costs or timelines.

Another hurdle in the process is rulings on which products are on the high risk list, based on the percentage of polyethylene used.

“We’ve an interesting situation where the cladding on one building, which was installed by a very good developer, was compliant at the time it was built. But a year later that product is on the banned list,” Cabello says. 

“The developer is saying, ‘It’s not our fault, it was compliant at the time’. However the legislation says the developer is still responsible in retrospect. 

“The strata plan got legal advice and the opinion was the developer was still on the hook.

“However, because they choose to fund it themselves, now they’re having to make a claim from the developer and lodge proceedings in court to recover the money.”

Innovation upside

The silver lining, however, has been the amount of innovation taking place in the cladding space.

Engineers at RMIT have developed fire-safe cladding using recycled glass to not only produce a safer building material but also address a major waste problem. The non-combustible cladding uses 83 per cent recycled glass as well as relatively low amounts of plastic binders and fire-retardant additives.

“Experiments have proven our claddings are fire-safe, water-resistant, cheap, and meet structural and environmentally sustainable requirements,” lead researcher associate Professor Dilan Robert says.

He says the technology also met key compliance requirements of cladding for non-combustibility set by Standards Australia.

“Claddings play a key role in preventing the spread of fire, particularly in high-rise buildings.

“Building fires can happen anywhere at any time and cannot be predicted, therefore fire safety requirements should be embedded in the design of buildings.”

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Article originally posted at: https://www.theurbandeveloper.com/articles/nsw-cladding-removal-crisis-remediate-grenfell