Grenfell disaster raises questions of management and maintenance – not high-rise towers

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The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower drew parallels with the Ronan Point gas explosion in 1968 which became synonymous with halting the advance of Anglo-Saxon high-rise Modernism. The terrifying speed at which the fire spread has prompted an emergency review of all towers which have undergone similar retrofitting of external insulating panels.

While many are cautious to jump to unresolved conclusions, there are many who also feel this is sympotamic of a longstanding trend of ‘managed decline’ among London’s social housing stock. It is also necessary perhaps to treat this as an opportunity to clarify the standards which our industry currently adheres to with regard to fire safety.

1. The ‘stay-put’ policy

The most common fire strategy for any block of residential flats in the UK is a ‘stay-put’ policy meaning residents who are not directly affected by fire are advised to stay within their flats. This is in part to avoid common stairwells becoming blocked with people escaping the building while fire services move up to attend to the fire. This approach also heavily depends on an effective compartmentalising of individual flats which clearly failed at Grenfell.

2. Sprinklers are not common to most residential buildings

The installation of sprinklers, particularly retrospectively, is a costly process and is not a fundamental requirement for existing high rise blocks. New build developments above 30m in height now have to provide sprinklers as part of Approved Part B of Building Regulations. While their effect in the case of Grenfell could be argued to be limited, there is an argument to see these installed in all high rise social housing, particularly the vulnerable nature and limited mobility of residents living on upper floors.

3. Compartmentalisation of flats assumes the fire source is internal, not external

Residential flat walls, doors and ceilings are required to be provided to protect the flat from fire for a minimum of 30 minutes. Compartmentalisation assumes the source of the fire is internal rather than external thereby also highlighting the potentially disastrous effect of fire ingress from the cladding system.

4. Evidence indicates panellised systems are a major fire risk

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Celotex RS500 used at Grenfell Tower

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Chartered surveyor Arnold Tarling has been a recurrent figure in the media, highlighting an industry response which points to the cladding as a contributor to the rapid spread of fire across the external envelope of the building. Retrofitting towers is a common practice among social housing providers primarily to improve thermal performance and save on energy bills while also providing cosmetic upgrades.

However thin ‘tin-foil-like’ metal films which are attached to insulating panels do not provide significant protection from flammable insulation behind them polyisocyanurate (PIR). Installation of these panels include providing fire stops at each floor in order to limit fire spread however flames from cladding panels appear to have bypassed these. Fire safety experts also point to the cavities present in such cladding systems of 30-50mm which allows oxygen to encourage fire spread verically.

Examples in Dubai, Melbourne and Paris have been cited as dangerous examples along with the recent fire at Lakanal House in 2009.

‘The London Building Act, which was replaced in 1985 with the national building regulations, required panels to have fire resistance of up to one hour. Class O panels do not provide this level of fire resistance.’ Lessons from Lakanal – Inside Housing

Planning drawings for Grenfell Tower indicate a proposed zinc-faced cladding panel however this appears to have been substituted with an aluminium replacement which has a lower melting point at 600C.

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Aside from the technical aspects, the most alarming aspect of this process is the grim discovery of a history of concerns by residents about living conditions and in particular fire safety concerns through the ‘Grenfell Action Group.’ This record indicates a series of warnings regarding fire strategy, power surges, smoke alarms, communal lighting etc. which accompany fears that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.’

It important not to use this episode as a call to demolish every tall building built in the 1960s or 70s. Tall buildings are typically extremely safe places to be and cities all over the world depend on them to allow higher densities. What Grenfell House should prompt is a more rigid check of existing buildings, specifically internal compartmentation, fire rating of common parts and the effect of retrofitted services such as gas piping. More importantly, it highlights the need for more stringent regulation of building practices, installation and the use of cheap building materials.

The uncomfortable truth however in response to the question fielded by reporters ‘how could this happen in the UK in 2017?’ is that it is a result of continued under investment in social housing. Politicians know that all over London similar resident groups have spawned with repeated concerns over living standards under the shadow of future regeneration plans. In response to a question regarding the living standards of London’s poor, David Lammy MP for instance described those living in designated social housing as the ‘lucky ones,’ highlighting the thousands of people who end up in B&Bs or the private rented sector in overcrowded flats unfit for modern day human habitation. Nick Cohen summed this up ‘In any tower block for the rich from Canary Wharf to Hyde Park, if the homeowners said they were in danger, their apartment managers would have jumped to reassure them. Comfortable people know how to complain, or how to hire professionals to complain on their behalf.’ Grenfell has shone an unavoidable light on the political undercurrents of London’s housing. Health and safety standards should transcend buying power or tenure and arguably be made more stringent for social housing. Now must be the time to change this model.

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