Fire safety expert speaks out

By Rhonda Dredge

It’s easy to buy an apartment with combustible cladding, according to fire safety engineer Dr Jonathon Barnett, who is working as a consultant on the restoration of Neo200.  

Dr Barnett knows from painful experience and is not afraid to speak out about the issue. 

He bought an apartment off-the-plan in a Prahran tower development in 2012.

“I asked about the cladding and was told it was non-combustible and compliant and that was not the case,” he said. “I had to believe what they told me.”

By 2017, after the Grenfell disaster in London, the building began attracting attention and this wasn’t because of its design features or flame red appearance.

Notices began appearing in public places, warning residents against the lighting of barbecues or using lights and power points on balconies for fear that the building’s cladding could catch fire.

When CBD News spoke to Dr Barnett, he was working with engineers and hygienists to check fire systems and assess the risk of moulds in water-damaged areas of 200 Spencer St.

“The same cladding is here. It’s a different brand but the same product,” he said.

Dr Barnett was reluctant to comment on the likely cost of the blaze at the 40-storey CBD building but is working with the City of Melbourne to investigate what went wrong. 

“There were a lot of things,” he said. 

His personal background and expertise have made him especially alert to the issue. 

No-one has agreed to pay for the replacement of the cladding on the Prahran tower and owners are deciding whether to go to court. Dr Barnett is potentially facing a bill of $5000 for his unit. 

While lawyers argue over culpability, residents are living in non-compliant buildings that are not as safe as they could be. 

“I lived in one,” the fire safety engineer said.

The dangerous cladding, which resulted in the deaths of 71 people in the Grenfell fire disaster in London in 2017, is an aluminum composite panel with a polyethylene core.

The cladding was invented in the 1980s and used on high-rise apartment blocks around the world. It is combustible and non-compliant. The cost of removal is dependent on access, on whether cranes or scaffolding are required. 

Dr Barnett is president of the Society of Fire Safety, and chairs his building’s owners’ corporation and was a consultant to the State Taskforce on Cladding.

This month, Engineers Australia published a practice guide he wrote for the design of cladding on buildings and a how-to for making an assessment for removing problem cladding.

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