Melbourne’s Neo200 tower ‘in a serious state of dysfunction’

Melbourne’s Neo200 building was plagued by safety failures including fire alarms that didn’t work, a lack of fire-rated doors and a flat battery inside the building’s crucial fire indicator panel, a key fire investigator has revealed.

While the 43-storey Neo200 tower only had 1.5 per cent of its facade covered in combustible polyethylene-core cladding and the fire that broke out in February this year only directly damaged six apartments, the failure of essential safety measures was so great it resulted in total evacuation of the building for 11 days after the fire, Melbourne Fire Brigade Commander Mark Carter told an industry function.

Fire fighters remove cladding from Neo200 after the blaze on 4 February, 2019. Jason South

“The big picture was the essential safety measures [ESMs] were so compromised that [the] building … was in a serious state of dysfunction,” Commander Carter told an Australian Institute of Building Surveyors (AIBS) audience.

As with the November 2014 cladding fire at Melbourne’s Lacrosse tower, there were no casualties in the Neo200 blaze. But the findings, based on reports not yet made public, reveal another headache for the owners of high-rise apartments – the burden on owners’ corporations and building managers to maintain and oversee the basic measures needed to ensure increasingly complex buildings stay safe.

Commander Carter said the Neo200 owners were paying about $30,000 a year to a number of contractors servicing essential safety measures.

“When the full forensic analysis of the building was done, there were so many issues found with ESMs that you are actually left to question are they getting what they paid for?” he told the AIBS gathering last week.

A request for comment from the Neo200 owners’ corporation went unanswered on Wednesday. A spokesman for National Fire Solutions, a provider to Neo200, declined to comment.

More than 1000 smoke alarms and smoke detector units had to be replaced before residents could return to the building, Commander Carter said. Back-up batteries in the fire indicator panel, which provides data to fire authorities from services such as smoke detectors, had expired in 2014, he said.

A corridor pressurisation system that aimed to prevent the halt of fire by trapping air failed because apartment doors did not seal properly.

“That’s a huge cost and starts to add up to why this building couldn’t be occupied for a significant amount of time,” Commander Carter said.

Cost-saving priorities by owners’ corporations often compromised safety maintenance, he said.

“The priority is usually, in respect of maintenance, how can we get it done cheaper and who is the cheaper maintenance provider? Bad, bad, bad result,” he said.

“Because you get a particularly complex building like this, it might be fine at commissioning, [but] there might be a whole lot of complexities involved with handling or whatever. If you flip maintenance companies two years into the life of that building, I can guarantee they don’t understand it and they are just doing whatever are the cursory checks.”

Fire safety compliance can be achieved by either passive systems built into the building – such as fire-rated doors and fire-proof walls – or by active systems, which include sprinklers and smoke alarms. The federal government’s Building Confidence report last year pointed out there was a growing tendency by builders to rely on active measures.

Cutting out expensive passive systems in construction – such as fire-rated doors that cost about $1000 each – can reduce the price tag, but increased the requirement for active ongoing management of fire risks, report co-author Bronwyn Weir said.

“It’s cheaper to build, but those maintenance costs not only increase and the chance a building is actively being properly maintained are lower because the systems are so complex,” construction lawyer Ms Weir said.

“In a big building where you’ve got a whole lot of sole occupancy units, doing full-scale fire-testing is difficult – you don’t generally do evacuations because people don’t want to leave their home.”

In addition, the building maintenance business – like many other aspects of Australia’s construction sector – is lightly regulated and practitioners do not need to show adherence to minimum standards. Industry body Fire Protection Association Australia is pushing for a recognised accreditation scheme for practitioners.

“FPA Australia is actively pursuing government recognition of these schemes and building confidence in this sector requires support from multiple parties to raise the bar, including increasing the expectation that competence can be demonstrated,” said FPAA deputy chief executive Matthew Wright.

Article By Michael Bleby – Financial Review – Source Link