Cheaply imported aluminium cladding from Melbourne’s fire-damaged Lacrosse tower was so flammable CSIRO scientists had to abandon combustibility tests after only 93 seconds to avoid damaging their equipment.
A CSIRO report obtained by The Australian reveals that the sub-standard Alucobest cladding — suspected of also having been used in thousands of buildings nationwide and linked with fires in large buildings around the world — sustained extensive “flaming” after 55 seconds and had to be extinguished after 93 seconds because of “excessive flaming and smoking”.
“The single sample failed the sustained flaming clause in the first minute of the test,” said the report by the CSIRO group leader of fire safety engineering Alex Webb. “The test was terminated soon after, and prior to (the required) 30 minutes, to prevent damage to our equipment.”
The tests, commissioned and financed by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and carried out on April 1, concluded the Alucobest cladding from the Lacrosse tower — co-developed by publisher and developer Morrie Schwartz — was combustible and failed Australian combustibility requirements that cladding have “zero” sustained flaming.
An MFB incident report into the November Lacrosse fire also reveals there have been seven high-rise apartment fires around the world directly attributed to the unsafe cladding with plastic cores, with more than seven deaths. Four high-rise towers in Dubai including The Torch — all with aluminium cladding with the plastic core — have suffered extensive damage from fires spreading up the facade of the buildings.
In France, seven people died in an 18-storey apartment complex in Roubaix, clad in similar aluminium facade as that used at the Lacrosse Tower.
In South Korea, a rapidly spreading fire in a 42-storey fire high-rise apartment complex was directly attributed again to the same sort of cladding used at Lacrosse as was a fire in a 41-storey building in Atlanta City in the US.
Of those international fires, the MFB reports say: “What is evident is the rapid and extensive vertical fire spread up and down the buildings in direct correlation with the fire (at the Lacrosse tower). Whilst the brand and make of the panels are not identified in the report, they would all appear to be of very similar material and construction to the material installed in the facade at the (Lacrosse building).”
CFMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor yesterday predicted an Australian worker or apartment owner would die from flammable cladding unless the issue were urgently addressed.
He said there was a growing problem of builders substituting quality products at the last moment for cheaper, dangerous, imported products to increase profits.
He also warned about companies in China selling building products such as cladding with questionable quality control and compliance certificates.
“People are going to be killed or seriously injured if something is not done about the quality control of products such as the cladding which are being imported from China,” Mr O’Connor said.
The Alucobest cladding used at Lacrosse and widely used across Australia’s booming apartment building sector contains a polyethylene, or plastic, core and does not meet Australian building code or fire safety standards.
The safer Alucobond product with a fibre core does comply with Australia’s building code and does meet fire safety, but is considerably more expensive.
It is not known how many apartment towers across Australia have used the dangerous alternative as cladding, with one industry expert describing it as the building sector’s “dirty little secret”.
Fire Protection Association chief executive Scott Williams described the issue as a “time bomb”, with tens of thousands of apartment buildings nationwide at risk of a rapidly spreading and intense fire because of the widespread use of Alucobest or similar cladding with a plastic core.
The Australian has asked Mr Schwartz if he was aware of similar sub-standard cladding having been used in any of his other extensive developments. He has yet to respond.
Residents of the Lacrosse tower are pursuing legal action over the use of the sub-standard cladding against the builders LU Simon, surveyors Gardner Group and the co-developers Pan Urban, owned by Mr Schwartz, and property funds manager Charter Hall.
The residents’ lawyer, Ben Hardwick from Slater and Gordon, said litigation was also being considered against others involved in the construction and design process.
The MFB report says labelling on the cladding from the Lacrosse building indicated it had been imported from China-based company Shanghai Huayuan New Composite Materials Co Ltd.
The CSIRO was called in to test the Lacrosse cladding as only an invasive test can determine the difference between non-compliant cladding with a plastic core and the compliant cladding with a fibre core. Otherwise they look, feel and smell exactly the same.