The Victorian Building Authority yesterday released its External Wall Cladding Audit Report, revealing some very important lessons for the building industry.

The audit, the first of its kind in Australia was prompted by the 2014 Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne's Docklands after it was discovered that combustible aluminium cladding contributed to the rapid escalation of the blaze.

The Audit Report 

Utilising its coercive powers, the VBA contacted more than 20,000 building practitioners and registered architects requesting information about the possible use of aluminium composite panels as cladding to external walls of buildings. The VBA audit covered some 170 high rise residential and public buildings constructed over the last 10 years in central Melbourne and the immediate surrounding suburbs.  Of the building permits audited, 51% were assessed as non-compliant with the fire resistant requirements of the Building Code of Australia (BCA). Despite being non-compliant, all but one building (apart from the Lacrosse building) were deemed to be safe to occupy because of the presence of other fire safety features such as automatic sprinkler systems. 

Lessons learned 

The VBA audit revealed some important lessons that go to the heart of the practices that have developed in the industry:

  • The BCA requirements for external walls, including suitability of products and materials, are inconsistently applied and poorly understood.
  • Non-compliant use of products and materials was not caused by one particular type of practitioner, rather, it appears to be the manifestation of different types of practitioners at different stages of the design, approval and construction of buildings having differing degrees of understanding of the requirements of the BCA.
  • Decisions made by different practitioners at different stages (design, specifications, design approval and construction) appear to have contributed to non-compliant use of materials and products.
  • Documentation received by the VBA illustrated that the materials and methods used by the builder were sometimes inconsistent with the approved building permit or was inadequate to demonstrate whether the as-built condition complied with the building permit.

Taking the wider view

Following the release of the Audit Report the VBA has indicated that it will now move to, amongst other things:

  • further investigate and audit practitioners who have been identified as involved in multiple instance of non-compliance
  • publish a technical document for use by practitioners that clearly explains BCA requirements in this regard
  • conduct future audits that will focus on the application of the technical advice published by the VBA
  • conduct future audits that will assess the documentation provided as part of the building permit process to ensure that sufficient detail is provided, and
  • work with industry bodies to inform relevant building practitioners of the requirements in relation to documentation.

Consequently, all practitioners in the industry, be it architects, facade engineers, fire engineers, private and municipal building surveyors and, of course, builders will be affected by the path that the VBA is carving. Not only is the VBA intending to provide technical clarity, it is intending to monitor compliance in a 'hands on' way that is unprecedented in Australia. 

We expect that the release of the VBA's technical advice is imminent. Watch this space!