Only a matter of time until high-rise disaster strikes again in Sydney

Of course, incompetence is always more probable than collusion. But here, incompetence is enabled by ideology. Successive governments loosened every bolt in our trusted system – replacing rules with discretion, councils with administrators, public certifiers with private, particular materials with performance standards and import controls with a tired old piece of grandma’s knicker elastic.


Combine this with our usual fly-by-night developers, industry corruption, developer donations and lunchable politicians. What did they think would happen? Everyone would just play nice?

The Neo200 fire burned for almost an hour, devouring a vertical shaft that was a positive invitation to inferno; a chimney clad, says Victoria’s chief firefighter Dan Stephens, in the same aluminium composite with which London’s Grenfell Tower was flossied up.

No one was hurt, this time. But given the meteor showers of well-informed insider horror storys that have lately rained upon my inbox as intensively as burning aluminium rained from Grenfell, it’s not if, but when.

Respected professionals – engineers, certifiers, architects, surveyors – tell of fire doors that should be filled with fire-retardant foam but are routinely left empty; habitual sign-off by certifiers who don’t even visit the site; wires running unprotected between walls that don’t reach the slab at top or bottom; fire dampers that are faulty; fire stairs that are required to be separate but are built within a single compartment.

One escape stair masquerading as two. 

One escape stair masquerading as two. Credit:Alan Harriman

Safety expert Allan Harriman posted an image on social media of a double high-rise escape stair designed as a “scissor-stair” within a single concrete compartment, one escape masquerading as two. Former Queensland building inspector Glen Pring says “all cladding systems are noncompliant”. Property academic Dr Jonathan Drane warns of a “a collision of design and construction delivery systems, a privatised regulatory environment, the all-powerful unscrupulous, inexperienced developer and the expedient certifier”. And at least one Sydney strata body is taking legal action because all of its fire doors, although certified, lack the required fire-retardant foam in their steel frames. On and on and on.

I’m astonished. In my architectural experience – admittedly some time ago — fire engineers were regarded as gods; strict, even humourless, they seemed bent on ruining the architect’s fun. But they were obeyed.

This resulted in the system to which we trust our lives. It presumes educated professionals, mandatory standards, approved construction. And it mounts three fronts of fire-resistance: material, containment and escape — designed, respectively, to stop the building igniting, stop the fire spreading and stop you getting trapped.

For much of this, architects used to carry the can. Now, under so-called design and construct building contracts, they’re routinely dumped after sketch design, doing no supervision at all. The title engineer is unprotected at law. Contracts typically specify X material “or similar” – a truck-hole that can include polyethylene, asbestos or kitchen treacle. Standards, once written in stone, now offer “deemed to comply” provisions which, although theoretically fine, are a special invitation to catastrophe – since who does the deeming? Engineers. Certifiers. Anyone.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

A perfect storm results from not a single mistake but a concatenation of errors and shoddities. In Grenfell the cladding was terrifyingly combustible but also, we now know, individual fire doors lasted only half of the required 30 minutes. Five manufacturers have been forced to withdraw products from market.

Here, it’s only a matter of time. Experts have warned of it for years. They’ve done reports (10 in 16 years), prophesied disaster, lobbied government. Wept.

In Victoria, where a post-Lacrosse audit found 51 per cent of towers had non-compliant cladding, and a post-Grenfell survey revealed that this affected 1400 buildings in Melbourne alone, the government is now auditing all resi-towers and schools for flammable aluminium and polystyrene cladding.  In NSW a “multi-agency taskforce” has identified 435 as high-risk and sent out 33,000 letters shifting the onus to councils and owners. But these reviews are restricted to particular types of cladding and leave other materials as well as broader issues of design, compliance, licensing, control and responsibility relatively untouched. Is a proper rethink too much to expect?

For half the 20th century Sydney’s fire paranoia saw it ban tall buildings solely for that reason. This was irrational, since the instigating conflagration was in an uptown furniture store stuffed with flammable goods and with all exits blocked. But at least it showed government concern. Now, it’s like they couldn’t care less.

What should happen? First, an audit – of materials, construction and escape, focussing on the new, the tall, the obvious. We need to educate all builders and tradesmen at least to Cert 4 and license all engineers and certifiers. We need impartial inflexible, unlunchable rules.

That monster is real. Its name is neo-liberalism, it burns offerings to the Great God Greed and it needs to be back in its box, pronto.

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. A former editor and Sydney City Councilor, she is also Associate Professor (Practice) at the Australian Graduate School of Urbanism at UNSW. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).




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