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USyd issued fifth Fire Safety Order, three other buildings under investigation for flammability

The Charles Perkins Centre, Nanoscience Hub, Abercrombie Business School are among a number of buildings ordered by the NSW Government to remove combustible cladding. Three buildings are awaiting cladding replacement and another three remain under investigation.

The University was ordered to remove flammable Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) on the Charles Perkins Centre by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment on 30 March 2022.

This marks the fifth building at the University to be issued a Fire Safety Order since last year. Others with active orders requiring cladding removal include the F10 New Law Building and the Business School’s H69 Codrington Building

“The owners [USyd] are required to replace the ACP with a non-combustible product and provide an inspection report issued by an accredited certifier,” the Order said. 

“The owners are required to develop and implement fire safety measures to reduce the fire safety risks associated with the cladding until the rectification work is complete.” 

When approached by Honi, the University said that it has implemented “a range [of] fire safety measures” to reduce fire risks until cladding replacement work on the Charles Perkins Centre and other buildings are completed. 

Honi understands that three university buildings remain under investigation for cladding fire risk as of November 2021, some featuring “minor” cladding and others more significant. The buildings that are awaiting an investigation are: H70 – University of Sydney Business School, SUSF’s Noel Martin Sports & Aquatic Centre and the Brain & Mind Centre. 

Status of eighteen buildings that were subject to a cladding safety investigation by the NSW Government.

Meanwhile, designs for cladding replacement are currently being implemented for J12 – School of Information Technologies, the USU’s Holme Building and the Nanoscience Hub, following past fire safety orders put on these buildings in 2021. 

In a statement, a University spokesperson said that: “All buildings have been assessed and deemed safe to occupy, with additional interim measures in place.” 

When pressed on whether the University chose to use ACP due to financial considerations, USyd claimed pricing “was not a primary factor in its selection” because “the benefits of it being lightweight, flexible and aesthetically appealing” were more important factors. This leaves open the possibility that the University and its contractor may have considered lower costs when opting for the ACP panels.

Considered in context, the factors the University cited bears some resemblance to those that were at play in the cladding of Grenfell Tower, namely the focus on the cladding’s aesthetic appeal. The Grenfell Tower Fire in London in 2017 claimed 72 lives and the high death toll was strongly attributed to faulty combustible plastic-backed ACP cladding. 

In 2018, Arconic Director Ray Bailey gave evidence to the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry stating that aesthetic appeal and costs were key factors in the combustible material being selected: “I believe the factors which influenced the decision came down to budget, aesthetics and thermal performance”. 

The ongoing 5-year long Grenfell Inquiry revealed that London’s Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea saved over £300,000 when it opted for ACP cladding compared to more costly non-combustible counterparts. 

Honi can also reveal that the University took two years to begin replacing the New Law Annexe’s cladding. An internal staff news article provided by USyd states that a portion of ACP cladding on the building was recommended for “removal and replacement” in December 2019. It was not until November 2021 that the panels were finally removed.

Responding to these revelations, SRC President Lauren Lancaster criticised USyd’s infrastructure delays and called for urgent repairs to buildings — including the SRC’s home in the Wentworth Building. 

“It is almost comical that this kind of infrastructural and student safety failing is so ubiquitous across campus, it speaks to a pervasive failure by the University to provide adequately maintained buildings for students,” she said. 

“Not least dealing once and for all with the SRC’s very own persistent mould problem, flooding or PNR’s horrendous sewerage failures.” 

The NSW Government banned the use of Aluminium Composite Panels in August 2018 following Grenfell. Under the ban, any person or corporation that does not comply are liable to face substantial fines. Corporations can be expected to pay up to $1.1 million whereas individuals can be fined up to $220,000. 

Composed of polyethylene (PE), mineral fibre or both, ACP is notorious for being highly combustible and was a contributing factor to 2014’s Lacrosse and 2019’s Spencer St incidents in Melbourne. 

USyd is not the only university in NSW to receive fire safety orders from the State Government, several notable buildings at UNSW and UTS were issued similar mandates. This includes UTS’ iconic ‘Cheesegrater’ Building 11, UNSW’s Ainsworth Building, Wallace Wurth, Tyree, the Material Science & Engineering Building and the Lowy Cancer Research Centre.