Published: 11 September 2017
Er Dr Lee Bee Wah: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) whether SCDF's checks on buildings with non-Class "0" cladding also cover the lifts done under the Lift Upgrading Programme; (b) for buildings found with non-Class "0" cladding, what interim measures are being taken to protect the safety of the occupiers; and (c) what is the timeline given to these affected buildings to remove the unsafe claddings.
Dr Chia Shi-Lu: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) how many buildings currently have claddings installed on their facades; (b) of these how many have been checked and passed local inspections; and (c) whether the Ministry will consider requiring more thorough testing of all claddings, including those which will be imported in the future, in view of violations in this sector.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs other than the buildings with external cladding being tested by SCDF, whether there are and should be plans for BCA to conduct an extensive audit of all buildings with external cladding and ensure compliance of construction materials with the Fire Code.
[Scheduled for 12 September]:
Miss Cheryl Chan Wei Ling: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) how does BCA ensure that general physical checks of building materials comply with specifications on drawings before issuing temporary occupation permits for buildings; (b) for building products supplied with fire-rated standards from overseas, whether there are random checks to ensure that they conform with the fire-rating standard specified; and (c) what measures will be taken to prevent future occurrence of suppliers providing non-conformance products.
1. I will respond to questions from Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Dr Chia Shi-Lu and Associate Professor Daniel Goh. Ms Cheryl Chan has asked a related question for the subsequent sitting. I will also answer her question.
2. When we look at these questions, it is useful, first, to consider how extensive is the use of cladding in Singapore. Cladding was not commonly used on the external façade of buildings in Singapore until the 1980s. Since 1985, based on building plans submitted, less than 20% of these building projects used such cladding.
3. Composite panels typically comprise a core material sandwiched between two non-combustible layers. The Fire Code requirement for composite panels used as cladding on external walls accepts three internationally recognised testing standards, the EN 13501-1 (European standard), BS 476 group of tests (British standard) and the NFPA 285 (US standard).
4. In this case, the BS 476 tests were applied. For composite panels used as cladding on external walls to meet the Fire Code requirement when using this British testing standard, the core material of the panels, when tested on its own, must be minimally of Class '0' standard, i.e. when the core material is ignited, the fire will not spread along the surface. In this reply, when I refer to the Class '0' on core standard, I am referring to this British testing standard, and the equivalent under the US and European testing standards.
5. Ms Cheryl Chan asked about conformance of building materials with stipulated fire safety standards. It works in this way: in a building project, the appointed registered architects or professional engineers, also known as Qualified Persons, are responsible for selecting appropriate materials and products which comply with the Fire Code. An independent Registered Inspector is required to inspect the building when completed, to ensure that fire safety requirements have been met. SCDF will then issue a Fire Safety Certificate allowing the premises to be used or occupied.
6. Some material will require testing to ensure that they meet the Fire Code requirements, like composite panels. These will need to be certified by local Certification Bodies, using test results from accredited testing laboratories, which can include overseas laboratories. The Certification Bodies also conduct periodic audits to ensure that certified products continue to conform to the certified standards.
7. Carrying out or allowing unauthorised works which have an impact on fire safety is an offence under the Fire Safety Act. Building owners can be fined up to $200,000 or face imprisonment of up to two years, or both. SCDF will also take action against the Qualified Persons and Registered Inspectors if they fail to carry out their duties properly.
8. Investigations were conducted into the fire at the industrial building at 30 Toh Guan Road on 4th May. The investigations have not yet been completed. At this stage, it appears that some of the Alubond composite panels used as cladding on the building's external walls were not minimally of Class '0' on core standard as required under the Fire Code. When my Ministry discovered this, we decided to check how many other buildings had been supplied with Alubond cladding by the distributor – who happens to be the sole distributor of this material.
9. We had earlier identified 40 affected buildings in the press release issued on 24 August. Since then more buildings have been tested and more Qualified Persons have contacted SCDF. As of 8 September, there are 37 buildings that may have used Alubond composite panels as cladding on their external walls. 20 of these have been tested so far, and the composite panels of 15 have been found to be not of Class '0' on core standard. Five buildings complied – their composite panels were tested to be of Class '0' standard. As I said, the percentage of cladding on these 15 buildings range from 3% to higher but mostly, if my memory serves me right, less than 25%.
10. How did this happen? I will set out what we know, based on investigations so far. Since investigations have not been completed, the conclusions are preliminary. What we know so far is that the distributor had sold two models of Alubond composite panels. One model meets the Class '0' on core requirement for use as cladding on external walls, while the other model does not. It appears that stocks of both models were mixed together at the distributor's local warehouse. As a result, non-Class '0' on core composite panels may have, at times, been supplied for use on the external walls of buildings. Further, it appears that the composite panels of the model certified to be Class '0' on core which were actually supplied, were not of uniform quality; some met the standard, but others did not. We are investigating if this is a manufacturing issue. In short, it appears that some of the Alubond composite panels that were installed as cladding on buildings failed to meet the standard required, for a mix of these two reasons.
11. We have strict fire safety requirements to minimise fire-spread and protect occupants. These requirements would help mitigate the fire risks from non-Class '0' on core cladding being used.
12. SCDF has since conducted comprehensive on-site fire safety assessments of the affected buildings, and assessed that these buildings remain fit and safe for occupancy. They have adequate fire safety provisions including fire protection systems. SCDF has also required the building owners to check that their fire safety systems are indeed in good order, enhance the vigilance of their personnel, and remove any fire hazards.
13. Nonetheless, SCDF is requiring the building owners found with sub-standard cladding to remove them, to further reduce the fire risk. They have been instructed to remove all affected cladding within two months from the date of notice issued by SCDF. This should be done by the end of October.
14. Er Dr Lee Bee Wah asked if SCDF has checked whether lifts under the Lift Upgrading Programme use non-Class '0' on core cladding. The vast majority of HDB blocks do not use cladding, or use only non-combustible cladding. Only a small number use composite panels as cladding on the exterior of lift shafts. SCDF has checked that these panels meet fire safety requirements.
15. SCDF will work closely with relevant agencies and the building industry to review the processes. For example, we will be exploring whether composite panels of different classes of flame-spread could be more clearly differentiated using easily-identifiable labels to reduce the possibility of the wrong type of composite panels being used.
16. SCDF has also issued an advisory to remind all Qualified Persons and Registered Inspectors to check carefully the intended cladding's Certificate of Conformity and test reports. Should they have any doubt whatsoever that the cladding is of Class '0' on core standard, they have been advised to send samples for tests by an accredited testing laboratory.
17. Dr Chia Shi-Lu and Assoc Prof Daniel Goh asked if there are plans to conduct a more thorough testing / extensive audit of all cladding. I have set out what has been done, and what reminders have been sent, for example, to Qualified Persons and Registered Inspectors. We must also understand the processes and how testing is done.
18. For example, it is not possible to comprehensively test every panel – because that will require setting them alight to observe the flame-spread. There will then be no panels left. There is no other effective testing method besides burning the panel. That is why sampling remains the method of testing used internationally. In addition to what has been done, we are also looking beyond the projects supplied by the distributor of the Alubond composite panels. We are reviewing them based on the testing that has been done, to consider whether further steps will be necessary.
19. We need to be stringent in our fire safety requirements. At the same time, when something like this happens, we need to find out why it happened. Is it because the rules were not adequate? Or is it because of a specific set of human errors which could not have been prevented by the rules? I have told the House what we have found out so far. And the steps that have been taken to ensure public safety.
20. Once we have completed the investigations, we will consider what further steps, if any, are necessary. If members have suggestions on further measures to be taken, they can send them to my Ministry.