Lessons for the industry in the aftermath of the Opal Tower fiasco

An investigation into the cracks that recently appeared in a Sydney luxury high-rise apartment has called for key changes in both building and engineering processes.

The evacuation in December of Sydney’s Opal Tower and the recent fire events at high-rise buildings in Melbourne have generated extensive community discussion and led to increased scrutiny on companies involved in the building sector. Now that the independent investigative team has delivered its final report on Opal Tower, it’s up to those in the building design and construction industries to digest the findings and move forward.

The Opal Tower report, delivered by a team of three senior engineers, found that hob beams differed in specifications from the original design or from industry standards at several locations in the building; that a decision to use less grouting than specified in the original design had raised levels of stress in the building; and that material deficiencies, including the use of lower-strength concrete than specified, had likely precipitated the damage. But the report also called for additional investigation and analysis of some structural issues before rectification works take place.

Regardless of the outcome of these investigations, the events at Opal Tower and the various cladding combustibility issues observed in Melbourne have underlined the importance of vigilance when designing Australian buildings. Everyone involved – from product manufacturers through to architects and designers, engineers, builders and installers and certifiers – has an important role to play to safeguard our buildings.

In addition to drawing conclusions about what caused the issues at Opal Tower, the report laid out four key recommendations that could help the industry as a whole avoid issues such as these in the future:

Create a registry of engineers.

    This relatively simple and affordable resource would be managed by the government in partnership with a relevant professional body and would hold Australian engineers to uniform standards.

Independent third-party certification of engineering designs.

    The authors recommend that all major projects be checked and certified by an independent third-party engineer prior to construction, and that changes made during the construction phase also be checked by a third party. This would increase costs for developers but could improve public confidence in the sector.

Create an open repository for all certifications.

    The authors argue that this resource, which would be publicly searchable online, would raise the accountability of certification processes and simultaneously provide confidence to the community that appropriate certifications were being undertaken. The report pointed out that the Opal Tower certifiers did their job to statutory requirements but did not pick up on several issues, indicating that there is currently a gap between what certifiers are required to do and the many problems that could exist. Therefore, changes to the certification standards may also be required.

Create a building structure review board.

    This is perhaps the most significant of the recommended changes: a board consisting of independent experts who would review major incidents of structural damage to buildings, assess the causes and then recommend changes to codes and regulations if necessary. The building sector would need to make sure such a board was constructive and did not create unnecessary red tape.

It may take state governments and the Australian industry some time to work through these recommendations, and to implement new regulations relating to cladding that have been introduced in recent months. But developers can rest assured that Brickworks products already adhere to the highest possible safety specifications. For example, Austral Precast –Australia’s largest manufacturer and installer of precast concrete products for commercial and residential applications – uses state-of-the-art, three-dimensional BIM detailing technology during the design phase to identify any potential construction issues that may occur.

Austral adheres to stringent quality standards and has the backing of the long-established, ASX-listed Brickworks Building Products, one of Australia’s largest manufacturers of building products. That’s one reason it’s been trusted for major recent developments such as Wynyard Walk in Sydney, Legacy Way tunnel in Brisbane and the Halo on Mount apartments in Perth.

While recent events, including those at Opal Tower, have underlined the need for diligence, Austral Precast already has quality checks, client checking and an auditing process that is unmatched in the industry and which ensures the product supplied is made to exact client specifications and installed as agreed.

Learn more about Austral Precast here.

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