It was dawn and the city was starting to wake when small flames began to lick up the side of a towering apartment complex in Melbourne’s centre.
On a balcony crowded with furniture, books and flattened cardboard boxes, a lit cigarette had been smouldering near some clothing, possibly for hours.
Then, with astonishing speed, a blaze began.
The Neo 200 apartment building in central Melbourne caught fire in February.Credit:Simone Fox Koob
As alarms began to sound, hundreds of residents rushed from their homes and into the street, craning their necks as they watched the blaze leap from balcony to balcony in the dawn light.
It would only be later, in the days following, that these residents would begin to comprehend how the fire would throw them into limbo, forcing them to reconsider whether apartment living was for them.
The early morning blaze on February 4 at the Spencer Street building – a 41-level apartment complex built in 2004 called Neo 200 – was brought under control in just over an hour by more than 80 firefighters.
But within a few hours, the chief of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Dan Stephens, said what no resident wanted to hear.
“It is my understanding that the building is cladded [sic] with aluminium composite materials, the sort of cladding that was on the Grenfell Tower,” he said.
Firefighters survey the damage on the Neo 200 tower block in Melbourne’s Spencer Street.Credit:Jason Southoffice
Owners were left stunned that this had happened to their home.
Four years after the Lacrosse Tower fire and less than two after the deadly Grenfell blaze, the fire at Neo 200 has brought a fresh focus on combustible cladding as the nation grapples to rectify thousands of homes, offices, hospitals and factories that have been found to be covered in the material.
In Victoria, about 800 private buildings have been found to have dangerous cladding on some or all their exterior, with more than 1670 audited by the building authority.
Hundreds of others across the country are in a similar situation, with residents lumped with a hefty bill to make their homes safe.
Many living in apartment towers covered in flammable cladding remain unaware of the severity of the problem they may be facing.
However, documents obtained by The Age show members of the owners’ corporation at Neo 200 were warned several times by the council in the months leading up to the fire that cladding on the tower could endanger the lives of residents.
A burnt air conditioner in one of the damaged apartments at Neo 200.
‘We went down and that’s when the trouble started’
When Peter Sek fled his apartment with his wife and two-year-old daughter Jess in the early hours of February 4, he took his phone, his wallet and threw on some clothes.
“Living amongst high-rise buildings, alarms are frequent but … We didn’t hear a thing until after the fire was put out and they activated the alarm in our apartment. When it triggered, frankly I nearly had a heart attack,” he said.
They grabbed what they could, thinking they would be back in five minutes. But it would be almost three weeks before they would be able to return.
Peter Sek, his wife Jidapha Ruangcharoen and two-year-old daughter Jessica had their lives thrown into limbo for almost three weeks after a cladding fire hit Neo 200. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
“We went down and that’s when the trouble started,” he said.
The small family spent weeks moving between hotel rooms, buying new clothes and toys, without knowing when they were going to move back in.
“It was a completely distorted life,” he says. “There was very little contact. We have groups on Facebook and online and they were not used. It was appalling.
Fire tower tenants had belongings removed without consent
“I’m trying to get into retirement, this apartment was going to be either sold or rented. We’ve got a house being built in Tarneit. The cladding issue is a huge stress and creates uncertainty for the whole family.”
Many others found that while they were forced out, their apartments had been entered without anyone seeking their permission. Some were left in a mess, with carpets removed and food left rotting in the fridge.
“They hadn’t cleaned up and the dust and crap that came out of the walls, on the floor, the place had to be cleaned from top to bottom,” said another resident, David Hill.
“When you go through that displacement, it’s bizarre. We thought to ourselves how lucky we were [compared] to those people who had lives ruined, and had things lost.”
Tim*, an architect who moved from China seven years ago to study and work, was one such resident. He moved into the Spencer Street building in July after buying an apartment.
“I thought, ‘It’s a good location, someday maybe this will turn into a good investment’,” he said.
On the morning of the fire, he vaguely heard a fire alarm outside that woke him up.
Tim’s apartment has been gutted after the fire damaged his balcony.
“I opened the bedroom door and wow, there was a lot of smoke. A lot. It just struck me. It was coming from below.
“I thought … the entire building had caught on fire. I thought that [it] was like Grenfell. I thought in that instant it had happened again.”
When he was let back into his place days later, he was shocked. The fire and water damage to the living room was extensive.
The damage to Tim’s apartment balcony.
He has been told he will be out for more than six months and possibly up to a year. His apartment has been gutted.
He has since found another apartment similar to the one on Spencer Street in Carlton, and insurers capped weekly rent repayments at $600.
Tim was told to find alternative accommodation for up to a year after his apartment was badly damaged in the fire.
But Tim says this is roughly $80 to $100 less than what he would be receiving if he was renting out his apartment, which he had been planning to do.
He still hasn’t yet received any money from the insurers, American International Group, which has been working through the claims.
“I’m paying my loan and my levy, so I have to borrow money from friends,” he says.
The experience has been distressing, making him reconsider whether it’s wise to buy apartments in Melbourne.
“I actually recommend to my friends not to purchase apartments,” he said.
“I think at the moment ‘be very careful about the building quality’ – not only cladding but all the other qualities. It’s just not good.”
A council spokeswoman said 41 fire and water-affected apartments still remained the subject of the emergency order, meaning they could not be inhabited.
The owners’ corporation and building managers are in the process of fixing these remaining apartments, she said.
‘Danger to life, safety or health of any person using the building’
Several times last year, the City of Melbourne council raised concerns about combustible cladding on Neo 200.
A building notice, issued in July and reissued again in October after it didn’t reach the correct address, outlined how the apartment block had been identified in 2015 as including Aluminium Composite Panels (ACPs).
And despite the Victorian Building Authority’s initial assessment, which had found the building was safe to occupy despite the presence of cladding, a new risk assessment method had found the owners’ corporation now needed to show why the material should not be removed.
Hundreds of residents are evacuated on February 4 following the Neo 200 fire. Credit:Jason South
The building notice, obtained by The Age, found the cladding was next to balconies on all levels, on an external wall on the gym and pool level, and an attachment over the concrete panel running down the west side of the building, constituting an “undue risk to the spread of the fire via the facade”.
“I am of the opinion that the building is a danger to the life, safety or health of any member of the public or of any person using the building,” determined the council’s building surveyor.
More than a month later, on November 28, a building order for minor works was issued to install early-warning systems for sleeping occupants in the event of a cladding fire up the western face.
It noted that in the event of an ACP fire, in those apartments which had a door or window near the cladding “sleeping occupants could feasibly be overcome by the effects of smoke without an alarm being activated”.
However, emails seen by The Age on November 29 showed some members of the owners’ corporation considered this edict by the council to be a “thought bubble” and said it “should be treated with circumspection”.
“There is no proof that any of the cladding at NEO is susceptible to fire,” wrote one committee member, “and, until we have a long-term recommendation/solution, there would seem to be no reason to race about spending owners’ money on any interim ‘solution’.”
At least a dozen residents who spoke to The Age said they were completely unaware until after the fire that the building notice and order had even been issued.
The residents who did know about the council’s notices were those living in a handful of apartments with bedrooms next to the cladding, where alarms were quietly installed in January to comply with the order.
Within weeks of those works being completed, a blaze would race up the facade of the building.
‘Major flaw in the communication’
Many residents told The Age they were angry and frustrated to find out that the council had been warning the owners’ corporation about the cladding without this being communicated to residents before the fire.
One landlord, who did not want to be identified, said there had been a “a major flaw in the communication between the OC and the owners in general”.
“In terms of knowing about the building notices, we would then have been potentially more active in knowing how they were following up and getting proof of what the cladding was, what reparation or plan they had,” she said.
Ablo Jallah, the owners’ corporation manager at the time when the council warnings were received, lodged his resignation from work at Neo 200 before the incident. He confirmed to The Age that residents weren’t told about the council notices until after the fire.
Discarded cigarette butts found on the balcony where the blaze started.Credit:MFB
“Everybody should have been notified … that notice should have gone to every lot owner because I think it’s a requirement,” he said.
“It wasn’t, and it wasn’t a result of me refusing to do it. I promptly notified the committee, organised a meeting and the meeting was quashed.”
In a statement to The Age, owners’ corporation chair Rona Gowans said they provided owners with a timeline of events and the relevant council documents after the fire, on March 25.
“When the OC was alerted to the revised assessment we took it seriously and requested time to respond to allow for discussions with the builder, obtain quotes to remove non-compliant cladding and install smoke alarms as requested by council,” she said.
“We continue to work through these issues and will keep all owners advised when we have further progress.”
A council spokeswoman confirmed they had served the building notice in October, and said this kind of notice generally should be communicated to owners.
“This Building Notice was issued and served on the owners’ corporation. The owners’ corporation has an obligation, under the Building Act 1993, to provide a copy of the Building Notice to each affected lot owner.”
Costs to repair and rectify issues at Neo 200 are starting to stack up.
Lily Chen lived at Neo 200 for six years until she and partner David Highet started renting their apartment out in October. Their apartment remains uninhabitable. They have given their tenants the option to break the lease, after they were hopping between Airbnbs.
“The costs are just piling up,” said Mr Highet.
“Whenever something like this happens it’s likely lawyers are getting involved, and even if you win that it’s lost time, lost rent, lost value. Storage, removalists and body corp fees are likely to rise.
“Also things like the cladding will have to come off at some stage, as much as we don’t want to pay we might have to end up paying. There are no guarantees with this stuff.”
It’s understood quotes to remove and replace the cladding have been sought by the owners’ corporation. Residents were told at the end of February that the cost could be upwards of $350,000.
It’s understood owners are also facing a bill in excess of $150,000 for the replacement of fire alarms after building surveyors who inspected the building after the fire found the alarm system in a “state of dilapidation”.
A source close to the project confirmed to The Age all smoke alarms in the building were replaced after the fire to comply with the emergency order, only for the owners’ corporation to find out that in the rush to get the system up to scratch, the alarms which had been installed weren’t compatible.
Hundreds of alarms then had to be replaced for a second time, adding thousands to the bill.
And for those who have been told they are out for up to a year, little reconstruction has been carried out in their gutted apartments. Many are asking why.
There is no access to fire-affected apartments at Neo 200, with residents told it could be up to a year until they are allowed back in.
Nearby residents haven’t heard or seen anyone access the area in weeks.
Asked whether they were in charge of renovating affected apartments or have been asked to remove cladding, a spokeswoman from builder LU Simon said: “LU Simon Builders is in contact with the Neo 200 Owners’ Corporation and is providing the assistance they require.”
LU Simon were also the builders of the Lacrosse Tower.
Many concerned residents say they are frustrated by delays in the insurance claim process. AIG declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the state government continues to keep secret a list of affected buildings in Victoria over privacy concerns and fears of buildings becoming targets for arson.
Across the city, more and more homeowners are being told for the first time that their homes are covered in a non-compliant dangerous material.
As for Neo 200, the MFB is compiling a post-incident analysis report with the VBA.
An annual general meeting for residents is scheduled to take place on May 15. As one resident put it: “People are absolutely furious, and it will be heated.
“There are a lot of questions.”
*Name changed at the request of participant
Article by Simone Fox Koob – The Age – Source Link