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The Combustible Cladding Crisis Could Cost You Thousands

Replacing dangerous combustible cladding in high-rise apartments could cost homeowners tens of thousands of dollars, as experts audit more and more at-risk buildings around the country.

The average cost of replacing combustible cladding is between $40,000 and $65,000 per apartment unit, leaving "total rectification" of a block in the millions of dollars, according to building expert Sahil Bhasin.

In straightforward cases, the costly bill would initially land on builders but can transfer to an Owners Corporation --  made up of individual lot owners -- ten years after the building's completion.

The fire-damaged building in Melbourne's CBD was covered in combustible cladding. Image: AAP

Victorian Senior Associate Harish Nair specialises in construction law and said the area is "not clear-cut".

“In general, my view is that cladding falls under the category of any other building defect and within the first ten years, it falls on the builder, architect, civil engineer and/or building surveyor," he told 10 daily.

"Once they have passed that period, the most straightforward argument is to say the builder is not liable, and it becomes the combined responsibility of the lot owners. But it isn't always this clear-cut.

"The liable party in each matter will be established on a case to case basis."

READ MORE: Melbourne Apartment Fire: Cladding The Same As Grenfell Tower

Bhasin is the general manager of property services company Roscon that is conducting more than 1000 cladding audits across the country.

"There's more and more building notices being issued each week but none are being removed," he told 10 daily.

"Part of that is because the authorities themselves don't know what is safe."

Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne on Friday said about 60 buildings remain as being of "higher risk" in the ongoing cladding crisis sparked by Melbourne's Docklands Lacross fire in 2014, and London's Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 that killed 72 people.

Recent attention has been on a six-storey blaze in Melbourne's CBD that was sparked by a burning cigarette and quickly spread up the exterior of the Neo200 tower.

Melbourne Tower Fire
Image: Firefighters at the scene of an apartment fire in Melbourne's CBD. Image: AAP.

The building on Spencer Street is cladded with ACM -- aluminium composite material -- and is the same as that was on the Grenfell Tower.

"That building is made out of concrete and the cladding was put there as a decorative feature, meaning you can take it off and people can still live there," Bhasin explained. 

He said the difference in cost depends on the type of cladding used and other structural requirements, adding Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is a higher concern.

EPS is a lightweight plastic with thermal insulation that is typically rendered with cement when used as a cladding material.

"In this case, you're removing the entire exterior of the building because the whole structure is made from polystyrene. That will involve people moving out, putting up scaffolding... it will look like a construction site all over again," he said. 

"It will take longer than a year to try and resolve."

It's not as easy as taking it off and putting on new cladding ... there a range of issues that need to be considered."

Building ministers on Friday agreed, in principle, to a nationwide ban on combustible cladding in the wake of the Melbourne apartment blaze.

"The use of flammable cladding is over," Minister Wynne said, who had pushed for a national response since the 2014 Docklands fire but cited "frustrating resistance" from the federal government.

Federal minister Karen Andrews confirmed the move for a total ban on the use of cladding for new construction that would be "subject to proper investigation and some discussions with industry".

"It is an issue of enforcement of some fairly strong regulations that already exist in Australia," she said.

READ MORE: Adele, Marcus Mumford Join Grenfell Fire Survivors To Demand Change

Seventy-one people were killed in the fire at Grenfell Tower on June 14, 2017. Source: AAP

She said the National Construction Code already prohibits the use of combustible cladding on high-rise buildings greater than three storeys.

But this did not apply for those erected before the code amendment, such as the Neo200 building that was in 2015 was found to have a moderate fire risk and deemed safe to live in.

Any changes to laws will only apply to new buildings, and not those currently fitted with risky cladding.

"This is a time bomb for residents and for owners corporations," shadow planning minister Tim Smith said on Friday.

They are potentially fire traps across the state.

Wynne on Friday said the estimated 60 buildings that have been categorised of being of higher risk are "in active engagement" with the Victorian Building Authority.

There are reports the state's building regulator said it could take more than two years for the cladding on priority buildings to be rectified.

A VBA spokeswoman told The Herald Sun it was working with owners corporations on the "best option" to remove the cladding.

10 daily has contacted the VBA for comment on these figures.

With AAP.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au