Cladding is used on the external walls of buildings to provide thermal insulation and weather resistance. While there are many varieties of cladding available, there are two types of combustible cladding (aluminium composite panels and expanded polystyrene) that pose a risk to building inhabitants and the wider community. In the event of a fire, combustible cladding could increase the rate at which a fire expands, thereby posing significant risk to occupants and people nearby. Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London in 2017 that claimed 72 lives, and the Lacrosse Building fire in Melbourne in 2014, the Australian Government has imposed new laws and regulations for buildings with combustible cladding.
In response to the fires at Grenfell Tower and the Lacrosse Building, the New South Wales Government (NSW Government) imposed the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Identification of Buildings with Combustible Design) Regulation 2018, and the State Environmental Planning Policy Amendment (Exempt Development — Cladding and Decorative Work) 2018 regulations in October 2018. The Regulation also requires owners of buildings with external combustible cladding to register their building with the NSW Government through the Cladding Registration Portal. The Victorian Building Authority also commenced a state-wide cladding audit on behalf of the Victorian Government, and has assessed and inspected approximately more than 2200 buildings since December 2017. The Victorian Government also established a Victorian Cladding Taskforce, to identify instances of improper cladding that pose an unacceptable risk to human life.
The University of Queensland (UQ) engineering researchers have also developed a database of building materials to help industry professionals assess the risk of combustible cladding and improve the safety of homes and workplaces. The cladding database is free and publicly available for fire engineers, and contains flammability data for a range of materials used in Queensland’s publicly owned buildings. A guideline for assessing buildings with combustible cladding, issued by the Queensland Government, defines a fire engineer as a practising professional engineer under the Professional Engineers Act 2002, registered in either or both of the following areas of engineering: fire engineering or fire safety.
“UQ’s Fire Safety Engineering group has also developed a continuing professional development course to provide engineers with the skills to confidently and conservatively use this data in support of a fire risk assessment. Risk assessments must only be performed by qualified fire safety engineers, who can then make informed decisions on whether remediation is needed in existing buildings and in what form,” said Dr Martyn McLaggan, UQ Research Fellow. The development of the database commenced immediately after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, with UQ researchers working in partnership with the Department of Housing and Public Works, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service and the Queensland Building and Construction Commission to develop the most holistic approach possible. The approach is not limited to aluminium composite panels and can be applied to all cladding materials, including insulations, sarking materials and high-pressure laminates.
“Flammability tests are normally expensive and time-consuming, and so it’s often not feasible to run them on every building,” Dr McLaggan said. “Now, building owners and engineers only need to run affordable and easy small-scale tests, which can then be cross-referenced with the library.” The database is the first step of continuing work, with the UQ School of Civil Engineering conducting larger-scale research on facade system behaviour and investigating how different components interact with one another. “This collaboration has been key to ensure that nothing is left unaccounted for and appropriate legislation is in place to ensure practitioners will make the most of the Cladding Materials Library,” Dr McLaggan said.