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Major city development ditches suspect cladding after safety fears

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A major development currently under construction near Adelaide’s city centre has scrapped plans to use polyethylene cladding on the building’s façade in the wake of London’s deadly Grenfell Tower blaze.

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The use of polyethylene-core aluminium composite panels has been under intense scrutiny since fire ripped through the 24-storey block in June, with the death toll estimated around 80.

A recent state audit of city buildings identified 77 that warranted further consideration – including major public venues such as Adelaide Oval, the Convention Centre and the new Royal Adelaide Hospital – and SA senator Nick Xenophon has demanded an import ban on polyethylene panels, warning “putting this sort of cladding on high rise building is like wrapping a building in petrol”.

Welfare group Uniting Communities today announced it had “listened to public concern” and redesigned the exterior façade of its Franklin St ‘U City’ development “to completely exclude the use of approved exterior cladding panels, in the light of safety concerns”.

The demolition and $80 million rebuild of the charity’s CBD headquarters kicked off in March, with the 20-storey development to include independent living units, short and longer-term disability and respite accommodation, and new space for the agency’s own operations and services, as well as retail space, a café and a 400-plus seat auditorium and convention centre.

An artist’s impression of the original design concept. Photo: Supplied

Chief executive Simon Schrapel said in a statement today that “safety and confidence in the building’s integrity must come first”.

“We have moved quickly to redesign a very small element of the development to eliminate all use of any composite panels containing polyethylene materials in the building’s façade, in the light of the ongoing debate about their potential combustibility,” he said.

“They may well be fully approved for use in Australia, but with the memory of London’s Grenfell Tower disaster still fresh we have gone back to the drawing board with our builders [construction company Built] to ensure no such material, however small, will be used in U City.”

However, he said that 95 per cent of the original façade already incorporated “completely non-combustible and approved extruded aluminium framing, glass and glass-reinforced concrete panels”, with only around 5 per cent being covered by aluminium composite cladding.

“However although they are approved and meet current building standards, the debate is still raging about the stringency of the Australian testing of such panels,” Schrapel said.

“So we have decided to go one step further… to be able to give our future tenants, residents and all visitors as much confidence as we possibly can in the safety of our development, we have now opted instead to use locally fabricated aluminium sheeting which is completely non-combustible and has absolutely no polyethylene content at all.”

He said the change “may come at extra cost to us as the developers”.

“However, cost is clearly not our primary focus when it comes to safety and protecting lives,” he said.

“There was no question of continuing with our initial design… if people couldn’t feel safe living in U City.”

U City is scheduled for completion in early 2019.

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