Evacuation threat for Harvest Apartment owners after flammable cladding found
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Evacuation threat for Harvest Apartment owners after flammable cladding found

EXCLUSIVE

Residents in a new Melbourne apartment building could be forced to evacuate following the discovery of combustible cladding on the facade of the residential block, which has no sprinkler system to protect it.

The Harvest Apartments in Clarendon Street South Melbourne.

The Harvest Apartments in Clarendon Street South Melbourne.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Owners of the 78 units also face hundreds of thousands of dollars in a repair bills after being issued with a show-cause notice asking them why they should be allowed to continue living in the eight-storey building.

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The flammable cladding was detected at Harvest Apartments at 144-150 Clarendon Street in Southbank during a major audit of central city buildings by Victoria's building regulator.

Port Phillip Council say the material covers more than 50 per cent of the facade and some is similar to the cladding blamed for feeding a vicious blaze at the Lacrosse tower in Docklands, which took as little as 10 minutes to climb 13 storeys.

An emergency order was issued by the council last Friday requiring smoke detectors to be installed in bedrooms of 12 apartments within 24 hours.

It also demanded that heat attenuation screens be installed on windows on the southern side of the building within ten days.

"Tenants that do not wish to follow the conditions of the order will need to evacuate," Port Phillip mayor Mayor Bernadene​ Voss said.

Harvest Apartment owners face hefty repair bills if they want to stay.

Harvest Apartment owners face hefty repair bills if they want to stay. Credit:Wayne Taylor

A lack of adequate fire exits are among about 10 breaches of building regulations outlined by municipal building surveyor Steven Baxas in a letter sent to 142 owners late last month.

Mr Baxas said there were "questions about the validity of the building permit issued for the construction of the building".

According to the council, staged building permits were issued by two private building surveying firms, Davis Langdon and Philip Chun and Associates. They did not immediately return requests for comment.

The apartment owners have been given until Wednesday next week to justify why they should not replace all the combustible expanded polystyrene cladding and install a sprinkler system in residential areas of the building.

Fire Protection Association Australia chief technical officer Matthew Wright supported the council's actions and said the works would "take significant time" and "cost hundreds of thousands of dollars".

Only Harvest Apartments' two basement car parks are protected by sprinklers. Mr Wright said this was because they were only required in residential areas of apartments more than 25-metres high.

"Many builders will deliberately build under 25 metres to avoid the cost of sprinklers. The difference in fire risk between apartments over and under 25 metres is marginal and the requirements are outdated," he said.

A spokesman from the Harvest's builders, Hacer Group, said the building was completed according to the permit, fire engineering report and approved specifications in 2013.

"The current review has raised some concerns about external material used and we are working with the owners' corporation and the council to investigate and work through the matter," he said.

Owners at Harvest Apartments are reportedly "very upset" about paying to fix defects in a building less than three-years old, although some sources close to the matter said they were confident relatively-minor measures could address the problems.

Cr Voss said the council sympathised with the owners and occupiers but "unfortunately, legislation requires council to deal directly with the current owners in such matters".

The Victorian Building Authority has refused to say whether it will investigate the conduct of the registered builders involved, a step taken in the wake of the Lacrosse fire and Mount Waverley construction pit collapse.

The 312 disgruntled owners of the Lacrosse building are facing a $16 million-plus bill to replace the non-compliant cladding linked to the fire in November last year.

Minister for Planning Richard Wynne said all levels of government needed to send a strong message to the building industry that cheap building materials risked public safety and would not be tolerated.

"I recently met with Jaime Briggs, the new Federal Minster for Cities, and discussed the potential for a mandatory certification scheme for high-risk building products, such as cladding," Mr Wynne said.

Do you know more about this issue? Are you an owner or do you live at the Harvest Apartments? Contact aisha.dow@theage.com.au

Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.

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