At last the some truth about what has happened emerges.
-why has it not been spoken about widely?
-why should owners have to foot the bill for rectification when it was known problems existed with the use of this type of cladding?
CLADDING RISKS RAISED BY MELBOURNE FIRE BRIGADE BEFORE NEO200 BLAZE … BUT COUNCIL DEEMED RISK ‘LOW’
A Melbourne high-rise damaged by a fast-moving fire in February was deemed a “medium” risk by the fire brigade several years ago, before the local council overruled that assessment and determined the risk was “low”.
- The Neo200 building caught fire after a cigarette on a balcony set cladding alight
- The MFB raised issues with a lack of sprinklers on balconies and the risk posed by cladding when deeming the fire risk “medium”
- The council reinspected the building after receiving the advice, but determined the risk was “low”
Melbourne City Council documents show the Metropolitan Fire Brigade identified four main issues with the Neo200 building in Spencer Street in 2016.
But the advice was dismissed after a council officer reinspected the building, with a handwritten inspection note concluding the “risk of fire spread is low!”
The concerns raised by firefighters related to risks posed by the combustible cladding on the side of the building, a lack of sprinklers on balconies and the likelihood of burning debris falling on firefighters in the case of a blaze.
Those concerns proved prophetic in February when a smouldering cigarette on a balcony ignited combustible cladding, and fire rapidly spread from the 22nd storey to the 27th.
Limited access forced firefighters to enter the building to fight the flames as burning debris fell onto the streets below.
The revelations are obtained in internal council documents and emails obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information laws.
Thirty-one apartments in Neo200 are still uninhabitable because of fire and water damage.
MFB email on fire risks:
The council assessment was part of a combustible cladding audit, instigated in 2015 after a fire at the Lacrosse building at Docklands.
The internal documents show the MFB wrote to council’s building surveyor stating the combustible cladding could allow fire to spread between the eighth story and the roof, and the sprinklers did not cover balconies where the combustible material was located.
RMIT University urban planning expert Michael Buxton said the council’s response was “mystifying” and “alarming”.
“I think Council has quite a bit of explaining to do,” Professor Buxton said.
“The MFB put out four clear criteria that were really raising safety questions and council seems to have ignored those.
“It’s alarming that this has happened. The documents clearly refer to the MFB assessment. The question that the council has to answer is, why did it not act on that assessment?”
The council documents also show the council concluded the impact of a fire would be “minor”.
They said the likelihood of injury to occupants would be akin to “minor cuts or abrasions”.
Melbourne City Council reports:
Sahil Bhasin from building inspection company Roscon said the notes show the council could have defied the MFB’s advice for many other city buildings.
“The fire brigade has got internal fire engineers in house that assess the risk,” Mr Bhasin said.
“Melbourne City Council does not. You should be following the advice issued by the MFB.
“If there’s a cladding fire there’s more than minor cuts and abrasions.”
The MFB confirmed its crews were forced to enter the building because of access limitations, as debris rained down on the street below.
“The recent fire at the Neo200 building was a significant incident which had the potential to be very serious,” the brigade said in a statement.
“MFB crews did an exceptional job under very challenging circumstances.”
In a statement to the ABC, Melbourne City Council said its 2015 audit “took into consideration a wide range of information”.
It said the risk assessment tool used at the time had since changed, after the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, prompting a “show cause” notice issued for the building in 2018.
The show cause notice said the aluminium composite panels on the building’s exterior posed a “danger to the life, safety or health“.
The council also said:
“There continues to be systematic weaknesses in the building laws and regulations and a national approach is needed.”
Fixing the problem ‘now on the residents’
In Victoria, residents have a 10-year period to claim on the builders’ warranty under the Domestic Building Contracts Act.
But, for those affected by the Neo200 fire, that window closed a year after the council considered the MFB’s concerns.
Owner-occupier Jenny Zhang said that left a “bad taste” in residents’ mouths.
“It feels like our hands were tied,” Ms Zhang said.
“Why did they choose to ignore that opinion? And if they chose to ignore it, why did they seek it in the first place.”
“Why did they not pass on that information?”
It is a position Professor Buxton sympathises with.
“All the emphasis is now on the residents to fix the problem,” he said.
“This is wrong. It’s ethically wrong and it’s wrong in every way.”
The Victorian Government has budgeted money to fix government buildings with combustible cladding, but not private dwellings.
A Victorian Cladding Taskforce audit has inspected 1,800 buildings or projects and identified 71 as “extreme” risk and 368 as “high” risk.
Neo200 was identified as “moderate”.
In 2017, the Victorian Building Authority determined the Neo200 building was compliant after examining a list of materials used by builders LU Simon.
That decision was reversed a year later when the show cause was issued on the high rise apartment.
LU Simon was this year ordered to pay $5.7 million to the owners of apartments of the Lacrosse tower, although most of that would be paid by the project’s architect, fire engineer and building surveyor for breaching contractual obligations.