A fire in the Grenfell tower complex in London, which has left an estimated 58 dead has shocked the UK, leading to protests, as well as exposing the deep divisions that exist between the have nots and have loads in the London property market. It has also left a lot of questions to be answered as regards how the fire spread and the degree to which recent refurbishments to the tower complex may have played a role in the tragedy.
The fire appears to have spread up the building via a facade, recently installed in the building to improve both the building’s look as well as its environmental performance. Now there’s a lot of he say’s she say’s in the media on this topic, which I’ll try to make some sense out of. But suffice to say we’ll need to wait for the official investigations to conclude before coming up with anything definitive. Some newspapers are already calling for council officials (which is Tory btw) and company executives to be jailed, which is jumping the gun. Ya and why don’t we form an angry lynch mob while we are at it…cos I think I think that would be heading for number 10 first!
No doubt the anti-environmental brigade will be using this incident as “proof” that refurbishing buildings to make them more energy efficient turns them into death traps, and there’s been stories like that circulating in the media. But this simply isn’t true. There have been fires in refurbished tower blocks like this before, which have been contained to the floor on which the fire occurred, without spreading up the facade. Or where the fire has spread, it only affected a few flats, over several hours and was ultimately extinguished by the fire brigade before any serious damage occurred and the building was safely evacuated.
I recall one incident for example an incident in a block in Townhead, where a flat fire occurred (word around the estate was that someone got the munches after coming home from the pub, but rather than going and getting a take away, they decided to do some midnight cooking….with predictable results!) on a recently refurbished block of flats. It result in some unsightly damage to the facade, which given that this block is visible from Glasgow’s main bus station was a bit of an eye sore. But as you can see from the photo above, it didn’t spread. So there’s no reason why such work can’t be undertaken without compromising the building’s safety. That said the devil is in the detail.
Generally insulation isn’t necessarily going to be flammable and if it is, its generally protected from fire by some fireproof layer to slow or limit the spread of any fire. E.g. mineral wool has pretty good flame retardant properties. Polythene insulation materials can be protected with a inflammable layer (e.g. Gypsum drywall). This will never stop a fire completely, but then again a large enough fire will basically burn through anything in its path, indeed the temperature will eventually get so hot that even the steel holding the building up will melt. The goal is to slow the fire down sufficiently to give residents time to get out and the fire brigade time to get in and tackle the blaze. Certainly this is the problem with the Grenfell centre, the fire spread far too quickly, going all the way to the top of the building in a bit less than an hour.
Based on what’s come out on the internet (which may or may not be true of course) there are three possible causes. Firstly, the chimney effect. If there was a gap between the facade and the original building walls, then the flames could have spread up this gap. Normal practice would be to put a fire break at least every couple of floors across any gaps (or ideally every floor). Keep in mind the panels used are modular, so that’s not a difficult thing to do. So that’s one question the investigation will need to get an answer too.
Another possibility is that the residents claim that the newly installed panels were mounted on wood bonded to aluminium. This would also present a means for the fire to spread. As the aluminium heated up, it would conduct the heat upwards, heating the timber on other floors to the point where it ignited. Again, proper fire proofing of the facade would limit the spread of the fire by these means.
Another consideration is that 1970’s era tower block’s aren’t terribly safe to begin with. Refurbishing them mightn’t make them more dangerous, but that’s because they are dangerous enough as it is. There are chinks in their armour. Often for example fire proof barriers, notably in dry risers and service ducts aren’t complete, there’s often gaps or inappropriate material has been used. Windows and doors which should contain a fire, simply don’t work. I recall viewing a flat of this era once and noticing that the front door, which should be a fire door, wasn’t one (modern practice would be for all front doors and most of the interior doors to be fire doors). To keep smoke and fire from spreading fire doors are supposed to close and seal off the different parts of the building, but a lot of older fire doors just don’t do this very well, allowing smoke and fire to spread quicker than it should. So a third possible cause would be the fire spread internally and then spread to the facade, e.g. a fire in a gas riser.
But all things being equal, given the recent renovations to the building, which included improvements to fire safety, the fire shouldn’t have spread so fast. But clearly this didn’t happen. There is also a question as to government regulation, as the government was warned by a report on previous fires, which they ignored and even sought to remove fire regulations. The actions of the Tory run council must be questioned, perhaps awarding the contract to do the refurb via the old boys network on the condition it was done on the cheap (as the government has done with a number of recent contracts, e.g. the security at the Olympics or the assessment of disabilities).
Also the actions of residents has to be considered. I’ve found fire doors in tower blocks propped open because someone was too lazy to have to constantly open and close them. This immediately defeats the purpose of having a self closing fire door in the first place! Some residents will also do things like store flammable material (e.g. rubbish or old furniture) in corridors or on balconies. So educating residents and enforcing fire safety is important.
On which point another issue with this fire was the “stay put” advice given to residents. Many also complained about how the fire alarms on their floor didn’t go off. On the one hand, this is to be expected. Do you really want to have to evacuate and go down 16 floors in your night clothes every time a neighbour on the 30th floor burns the toast? But on the other hand there are times when you do need to evacuate the whole block.
In more modern buildings there will often be an intercom system, to allow the concierge or fire brigade to communicate with residents and advice them of what is going on. If the smoke alarms are wired into the building management computer, then it can track the spread of a fire by seeing how the smoke spreads and activate alarms on neighbouring floors as required (or if it sees a certain number triggered on more than one floor, turn on all the fire alarms and declare a full scale evacuation). If its tied into the sprinkler system, it can also selectively turn on sprinklers to help contain the fire without any human intervention. But of course integrating all of that hardware into an existing block isn’t going to be easy, nor is it cheap.
And speaking of which, there is the question of sprinklers. Why did the sprinklers not stop this fire? Well because it didn’t have any. That said, assuming the fire did spread via the facade (and that’s not yet proven), sprinklers won’t have been able to stop it spreading, so its kind of a moot point. That said, the UK also has something of a backward view of sprinklers, where they are seen as a means of protecting property rather than saving lives. Hence they are often not required by law (only buildings built after 2007 need to have them, but only if higher than 30m tall), although your insurer might insist on them. So we can have the hypocrisy of building control signing off on a building design as safe, only for the insurer to turn around and say, nope its a tinder box, include sprinklers. The end result is that more valuable property such as hotels, office blocks or high end residential blocks can have sprinklers, but less valuable buildings (where we plebs live!) don’t have them.
In other countries, where they have a longer history of high rise living and thus more experience of high rise fires, the legal situation is very different. And generally this means they are a lot stricter in terms of what’s allowed and where sprinklers need to be installed. But even so, its patchy. To make matters worse there are four separate policies on fire safety in the UK in England, Scotland, NI & Wales.
This is the sort situation where intervention from the EU is needed. This has been resisted by the building lobby and the euroskeptics who regard the EU as a bunch of Elf & Safety killjoys. Hopefully this fire might be the nudge that’s needed to convince the EU to intervene. Of course ironically, given that the UK is about to leave the EU, it will be excluded from these changes. We’ll have to wait for the Tories to do something.
And that’s the problem, as my guess is once the anger has died away they’ll likely just fudge the issue. Bottom line, which is more likely, that the Tories will undertake costly repairs of tower blocks full of pleb’s and require private landlords to spend a lot of money doing up their property. Or will they just they just bury it in a public inquiry that takes a decade, then bring in some meaningless voluntary codes and have the Daily Mail blame the whole mess on migrants and environmentalists? This is the thing that Corbyn doesn’t get about the EU, it shouldn’t matter who is in charge of the country, measures will be brought in if they are needed across the whole EU.
Also this incident does expose the chronic problems affecting the UK’s housing problems. The UK has something of a housing crisis with soaring rents and a massive waiting list for council houses, largely thanks to past and present Tory government policy. I recall one brexit voter trying to argue that he was voting leave because his daughter couldn’t get a council house and this all the fault of foreigners. As the graph below shows construction of both social housing and the available stock fell during Thatcher’s reign and the country has never recovered since. Recent Tory squeezing of council and housing association budgets as well as their right to buy scheme have all squeezed already stretched system yet further. Hence we can have the absurdity of people living in squalid tiny box room flats in one of the world’s richest cities.
By contrast in the rest of Europe, its very different. Not only do they have a larger supply of social housing, but some of their blocks are so well maintained and designed some are actually world heritage sites. I mean architecture students travel from around the world to visit these estates. About the only reason I’d take students to a UK council estate was if I wanted to show them how NOT to do social housing…or I just didn’t like them very much and hoped they’d get mugged!
And there is an element of the UK paying the price for the mistakes of the past, notably those made by labour governments of the 60’s and 70’s (i.e. the sort of labour government Corbyn wants to have). The fact is that lot of the UK’s tower blocks are cheap ugly blocks of concrete, which are just not fit for purpose, they were thrown up in a hurry on a shoe string budget, with little thought for the long term implications. Trying to refurbish them, while its better than doing nothing, it is basically an attempt to try and make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There is a credible argument for simply imploding many of these buildings and starting again from scratch. Of course, that’s not cheap and it would take a significant period of time to implement.
However my worry is that with the Tories in charge their policy will be to use this as an excuse to firstly do nothing and stop all refurbishment of council blocks, leaving many people living in damp, cold, unsafe and generally unhealthy living conditions. And then gut the UK’s social housing system entirely.