Following a 2014 high-rise apartment fire in Melbourne and more recently after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, Wells Haslem Mayhew client Fairview Architectural has positioned itself as the industry leader in improving public understanding about the safe use of aluminium panels. Co-CEO Benjamin Haslem explains. 

It was soon after 10am on 14 June when the first video footage of London’s Grenfell Tower, engulfed in flame, appeared on computer screens at building façade manufacturer Fairview Architectural, in Lithgow, on the NSW Central Tablelands.

The company’s owner and managing director, Andrew Gillies, knew what was likely behind what he was witnessing: Grenfell Tower was clad with Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) panels containing highly-flammable polyethylene (PE) sandwiched between two layers of aluminium sheeting.

Andrew’s UK arm, Valcan, had never provided materials to the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, and he knew nothing about the public housing high-rise in North Kensington, West London.

But he knew there was only one feasible explanation for how a building of that size and height could turn into a giant bonfire in a matter of minutes.

Watching the same footage at our North Sydney offices, the Wells Haslem Mayhew team suspected the same.

In Australia, such a construction would breach every State and Territory building regulation. We soon learned it was the same for the UK.

What made things worse in London was an additional layer of flammable insulation under the panels and a complete lack of fire sprinklers. An estimated 80 people perished, though the final death toll won’t be known for several months.

Our team at Wells Haslem Mayhew was well versed in ACM panels, having worked closely with Fairview since 2015, helping the company educate a wide range of stakeholders about the safe use of the popular and versatile building product.

In November 2014, a smaller, though still alarming fire had spread rapidly up one section of the Lacrosse Tower in Melbourne’s Docklands district.

By mid-2015 it emerged that the 23-storey residential building had been clad in flammable PE aluminium panels and this had helped the fire spread.

Fortunately fire sprinklers and fire-proof internal walls averted tragedy and no one died.

While Fairview had not supplied panels to Lacrosse Tower, Andrew Gillies soon realised widespread misunderstanding about panels had the potential to damage his business and those of some of his competitors. It also posed a potential risk to public safety.

Compounding the issue was that other high-rise buildings in Melbourne were also fitted with non-conforming PE panels.

It was clear that politicians, journalists and others were confused about panel types, brands, country of manufacture and the roles of supplier, architect, developer, builder, fire engineer and building surveyor in determining what cladding type must be used on a residential building.  

Media reported that Lacrosse Tower was fitted with “cheap Chinese panels”; at least one Federal Labor Senator called for a ban on the importation of all Chinese-manufactured panels irrespective of whether they have been deemed safe for use by Australian regulators.

A TV reporter held up a piece of the Alucobest-branded panel like that fitted to Lacrosse and told viewers the “Alucobond” panel she was holding in her other hand should have been used. It wasn’t that simple.

The truth was that many brands – including those manufactured by Fairview – conform to regulations governing high-rise residential buildings. Further, the people responsible for determining if a building’s panels were fit-for-purpose and fitted according to code and regulation, were building surveyors and/or fire engineers.

Fairview provides full specifications, installation guides and test data to help ensure all its ACM panels – manufactured in China to ISO-9001 quality standards – are used for the purpose for which they were designed and certified. 

By June 2015, Andrew realised Fairview faced a very real prospect that all ACM panels could be banned or so unfairly demonised as to be commercially unviable.

Further, the company was concerned that residents in high-rise residential buildings could be unduly and unnecessarily alarmed.

While all panel manufacturers and distributors went to ground, the Fairview team decided to go on the front foot, positioning the company as industry friend and educator.

Working closely with Andrew, his team and Melbourne online reputational expert, Gerry McCusker, we set about educating stakeholders about the Core of the Issue.

It was crucial that all stakeholders learned that while fitting ACM panels with a PE core to multi-storey buildings was contrary to the Building Code of Australia (BCA), two other broad types of panels could be fitted in many situations. These are:

  • FR or fire-resistant panels with a mineral-composite core; and
  • panels with a solid aluminium honeycomb core – deemed non-combustible in CSIRO tests.

Wells Haslem Mayhew assisted Andrew in organising meetings with several Federal and Victorian MPs, their advisers and regulators to educate them about the issue.

Fairview also produced a short video as part of its efforts to educate various stakeholder groups: builders, architects, developers, industry associations, regulators, state and federal politicians and the media.

The video made three key points:

  • all panels must be correctly specified;
  • professionally installed; and
  • officially certified to perform to code and to regulations.

The video can be viewed here.

Fairview, in conjunction with leading fire engineers, also ran over 80 educational public and in-house seminars in each capital city about the compliant use of ACM cladding. These were attended by key stakeholders in the cladding industry, including architects, builders, installers, certifiers, façade engineers and other industry professionals.

Fairview’s view was that focus should shift to the material in the core of the cladding and whether people tasked with determining if the cladding is fit for a purpose are fulfilling their obligations.

Our team assisted Fairview in writing a submission to the Senate Economics Committee inquiry into non-conforming building products.

The recent Grenfell Tower tragedy placed the issue squarely back on the political agenda.

Sadly, it took another fire – a far more devastating one – on the other side of the world, for Australian politicians to act with any vigour.

Most states and territories established taskforces to investigate the issue and the Senate Economics Committee held fresh hearings.

Wells Haslem Mayhew Account Director, Kathy Lindsay and I held a full-day workshop helping Fairview rehearse for its appearance before the committee.

Meanwhile Gerry McCusker produced a second video, which was also used in the UK. The video - Check, check and check again - focuses heavily on the correct fitting of ACM panels. This video can be viewed here.

Our Co-CEO Alexandra Mayhew and Account Manager Isabelle Walker worked with Kathy and the Fairview team to design striking new red, amber or green labels (below), to affix to Fairview’s panels.

Fairview believes its new labels - developed in partnership with international-standards certifier CertMark - will make it easier for builders, owners and other stakeholders to differentiate between panel types and where they can be used.

Fairview has written to every State and Territory minister responsible for building safety and distributed three circulars to builders, architects, developers and others updating them on the company’s initiatives around the correct use of ACM panels.

Andrew has told politicians and regulators that the Lacrosse Tower fire was a wake-up call for the cladding industry. Previously, Fairview, like other panel manufacturers and suppliers, was unaware PE panels were, in some instances, being fitted contrary to the BCA.

Aluminium cladding in itself is not dangerous. Unfortunately, the wrong type has been used on some high-rise buildings in the past.

Andrew has stated publicly that the system of checks and balances covering the correct fitting and use of ACM panels needs tightening. Fairview would like to see better enforcement of any testing or code regulations.

In his testimony to the Senate Economics Committee inquiry in July, Andrew said Fairview supported a national audit of buildings to identify where ACM panels have been fitted contrary to the BCA and would provide information to that audit “without compunction”.

About 18 months ago Fairview decided to discontinue the importation of PE panels in Australia. Fairview is now slowly selling down its stocks of PE core, where it is confident the customer is fitting the panel according to code and regulation. Demand is very low.

While Fairview retains PE stock with a market value of about $400,000 Andrew told the Senate Committee the company does not oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of PE panels and would write off remaining stocks was a ban implemented.

Fairview’s responses to the Lacrosse and Grenfell fires are examples of how a business or organisation can use a crisis or controversy to its advantage by taking a leadership role.

Andrew readily admits he was motivated in part by commercial concerns but equally so by the desire to allay misplaced concerns and ensure regulations covering safe building practices are understood and where necessary, strengthened.