The state government of New South Wales (NSW) has launched an enquiry and threatened to audit building certifications after a brand new luxury tower cracked on Christmas Eve, causing a scare and leaving hundreds homeless.
Around 300 people were forced to evacuate a 34-storey luxury apartment building in the Olympic Park after residents heard cracking noises and felt the building move.
Some made their way back on Christmas day but two days later the builder ordered everyone out for a comprehensive safety inspection, led by WSP.
Since then, more damage has been found and angry owners and tenants don’t know when they’ll be able to return, or how the debacle will affect the value of their homes.Â
Initial investigations revealed a large crack in a pre-cast concrete panel on the 10th floor of the building, called Opal Tower. Fifty-one apartments, housing around a quarter of the tower’s residents, were deemed unsafe.
The alarm was raised at around 2.45pm on Christmas Eve, and people in 150 of the building’s 392 apartments were evacuated to a showground in the Olympic Park, as were people from two neighbouring buildings, said NSW police.
One resident said he heard a "big bang" like something "snapped". Building movement jammed some doors, so police had to break them down to get residents out, reports state broadcaster ABC.
One-bedroom apartments sell for AU$620,000 in the tower, which was completed in 2018 by Kajima-owned contractor Icon Co for developer Ecove, while two-bed flats fetch up to AU$935,000, reported ABC.
The building only opened in August 2018, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.
On Christmas day, some residents of apartments deemed safe returned, police said, but two days later Icon Co asked all the tower’s residents to vacate the building so engineers could undertake a comprehensive safety review.
The builder paid for nearby hotel accommodation during the inspection, which it said would last at least 10 days. That has since been extended to at least 11 January.
Canadian engineer WSP is leading the investigation. It was Opal Tower’s structural engineer, according to a CTBUH listing of the project.Â
On 1 January WSP said it found more damage on the building’s fourth level, less serious than that the tenth. However, it said the building was "structurally sound overall".
The level four damage, like that on level 10, pertained to the connection between prefabricated and in situ poured concrete, WSP said.
"As a precautionary measure, propping is being installed to support level four and this will be completed by Icon Co by the end of today," said WSP at the time.
Apartment owners have complained of their homes being "absolutely trashed" by the structural investigation, saying their floors and ceilings have been torn up to make way for emergency structural supports, said Sydney Morning Herald.
The NSW state government has appointed two engineering professors to lead an inquiry into the incident. They are University of NSW dean of engineering, Mark Hoffman, and University of Newcastle Australia engineering dean, John Carter.
On Friday, 4 January, the professors issued a statement saying they had found "a number of design and construction issues".
"We can say from our initial assessment there is no evidence of any issues with the foundations of the building, though we believe that there are a number of design and construction issues that require further investigation," the pair stated.
Also on Friday, NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts said residents should not move back in to the tower until the professors finish their "initial report", The Guardian reported.
This prompted the contractor, Icon, to secure hotel accommodation until next Friday, 11 January.
Over this weekend, residents left in limbo complained of living out of hotels or Airbnbs, and having no information on the status of their homes. Some were considering a class legal action, ABC reported.
The fiasco has raised the question of whether a high-rise residential building boom in the Australian capital has led to the proliferation of serious building defects.
Building Designers Association of Australia president Chris Knierim told ABC he had seen construction standards decline over the past three years.
"This is not an isolated incident," he said. "The concern is that during the construction boom we can’t cope with the level of construction that is going on. Corners are being cut. And what we’re seeing is it’s rushed because of the dollar, people need to make money and we have a tick and flick mentality. Builders are dropping their margins just to make money … it’s shocking."
Separately, Icon and developer Ecove have gone to court over a payment claim made by Icon worth AU$2.5m. That claim went from an adjudication all the way to the appeals division of the Supreme Court, which last month ruled in favour of Icon.
That case highlighted the pervasive "power imbalance" regarding payment in the industry, a spokeswoman for the Australian Subcontractors Association, told AFR.Â
Also in response to the emergency, the government of New South Wales announced a crackdown on building certifications, with up to 30% of certification work to be audited in the state each year.
Image: Opal Tower opened to residents in August 2018 (Opaltower.com.au)