Worrying cracks appear in Opal Tower, Sydney, Australia

Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour in New South Wales, Australia
Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour in New South Wales, Australia

The Opal Tower in Sydney, Australia was completed in August 2018 to much acclaim, offering a new way of Australian apartment living that was family-focused and affordable. The building’s unique triangular design and attractive ‘sky gardens’, would provide natural light and ventilation, and the design was unanimously chosen in a competition with three other firms.

Opal Tower stands 117m high with a 38,000sq m span, 36 storeys and 392 apartments, ranging from one to four bedrooms, with a ground floor lobby and retail space. The AU$128 million tower development was built to a tight timeframe, 16 km from Sydney’s central business district. It offers new homes boasting better amenities, community and work-life access and a forecast population of 14,000 by 2030, benefiting from new infrastructure, connectivity and local transport.

On New Year’s Day, structural cracks were found on the fourth level of the building, just a week after a larger fissure was discovered on Christmas Eve on the tenth level and ‘banging noises’ were heard.

Cracks in the building

The original winning design had been further developed by architects and the authority’s Design Review Panel which, among other amendments, increased the width of the vertical garden slots. It has been speculated that these slots could be responsible for subsequent cracks in the building, where panels located next to them had broken.

The problems have occurred at the junction between prefabricated concrete panels and concrete that has been poured in situ, thought to be a result of the installation method or problems with the design and construction of the building.

While the building has been declared ‘structurally sound overall’ by construction engineers, WSP, its residents were forced to move out of their new homes as engineers assessed the damage. Those living on the affected floors will not be able to move back until these floors are shored up pending repairs.

Three residents refused to be evacuated but their homes are not located in areas of concern. Those who have moved out have been housed in a local hotel – although some were forced to move again, as the rooms they had been temporarily housed in had been pre-booked for New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Who is responsible?

The New South Wales government is now investigating the tower and has announced a crackdown on ‘dodgy certifiers’, as well as the introduction of a new ‘name and shame’ register and tougher legislation within the construction industry. The new policy would result in negligent certifiers being immediately banned from the building industry. The directors of the company that signed off the Opal Tower, McKenzie Group Consulting, had previously been fined and cautioned on a number of occasions by the Buildings Professionals Board for unsatisfactory professional conduct, inadequate fire safety solutions, issuing construction certificate that was inconsistent with the approved plans, and other unsafe practices.

The company that built the tower, Icon Construction, has rejected accusations that the building was constructed too hastily, accusing labour opposition politicians of turning the story into a ‘sensational’ news story for political gain.

A new row has developed between the builder and the developer, over who should bear the cost of the legal liability, damage and economic loss to the home owners, amidst what is now believed to be errors in the construction or design of the building.

The developer, Ecove, took the unusual step of publishing an extract from its confidential contract with the builder which it accused of having “full liability on the design and construction”, in an attempt to establish Icon’s responsibility for the building’s flaws. As part of the contract, Ecove said it gave Icon an initial design concept which was then developed into a detailed design by the builder and that it had outsourced the detailed design of the tower to the builder.

The site chosen for the Opal Tower is on the Sydney Olympic Park, part of the 2000 Olympic Games site, and was largely built on reclaimed swampy land that had previously been deemed unstable for high rise development. Ecove said there was no issue with the foundations, which were built on shale bedrock in common with other buildings in Sydney. 

It would seem the Opal Tower cracks have revealed gaps in how building approvals are assessed and signed off in New South Wales.

If you are buying property in England and Wales, ask an Independent Chartered Surveyor to carry out a building survey.

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