Some insurance companies worldwide have stopped insuring tower blocks clad with the same sort of materials that led to the rapid spread of the fire in London’s Grenfell Tower that killed 72 people. Building regulations are also struggling to catch up with effective regulation and monitoring.
Fire engulfed all four sides of Grenfell Tower in June 2017 within minutes of a fridge-freezer electrical malfunction in one apartment. The materials, the method of construction, and shoddy project management within the council has been blamed.
The cladding composition of Grenfell Tower
The 24-storey tower’s façade had only just been renovated before the fire, and is understood to have been constructed as follows:
- exterior cladding: aluminium composite panels (3 mm each) with polyethylene core
- 50mm standard ventilation gap between the cladding
- 150mm PIR (polyisocyanurate) foam slab insulation
- existing prefabricated reinforced-concrete façade
- new PVCu double-glazed windows, mounted in the same vertical plane as the PIR slabs.
The particular aluminium composite panels were called Reynobond PE 55. The company that made them, Arconic, has since stopped sales of the product worldwide for tower blocks.
It has asserted that there might have been no casualties if other aspects of the refurbishment had been different, citing uPVC windows, the PIR insulation and decorative cladding panels.
“Combining ACM PE with combustible PIR [polyisocyanurate] insulation without any horizontal or vertical bands of non-combustible material to limit spread,” was also to blame, said Stephen Hockman QC, counsel for the American company at a hearing last December.
Celotex insulation foam RS5000 was sandwiched between the panels’ aluminium front and back. The Fire Brigade said this insulation proved “more flammable than the cladding”.
Celotex’s stated conditions for which the use of their product has been certified include: using (non-combustible) 12 mm fibre cement rainscreen panels, ventilated horizontal fire breaks at each floor slab edge, and vertical non-ventilated fire breaks.
Contamination caused by the burning panels
An independent study led by Professor Anna Stec last month reported “significant environmental contamination” in the local area, including carcinogen levels many times greater than residential guidelines permit.
Char samples from balconies up to 100 metres away were contaminated with asthma and cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), posing an increased risk of asthma and cancer. Soil samples taken within 140 metres contained other carcinogens at levels up to 160 times greater than usual and phosphorus flame retardant traces.
The report highlights just how toxic the materials manufactured by Arconic, Celotex and others are
Stec’s report identifies particular chemicals relating to the materials used in the refurbishment. As the residents’ group Grenfell United says: “The report highlights just how toxic the materials manufactured by Arconic, Celotex and others are.”
A public enquiry is still underway. The report raises concerns about the toxic load of this and similar buildings.
Meanwhile, the same faulty appliance, a Hotpoint FF175BP fridge-freezer, which caused the fire to start is still out there and causing fires (one in my town recently). Installing better sprinkler systems could help but cannot give 100 per cent guarantees that fires will not spread.
Some insurers have stopped covering such panels
Insurance premiums covering cladding have soared 900 per cent since the Grenfell disaster.
Insurers are increasingly wary of anything that may be non-compliant with building regulations. Frequently they experience problems with being able to identify what materials are used in a building’s exterior cladding – there is a lack of suitably qualified personnel to do this work.
Peter Jones, national underwriting manager for underwriting agency CHU, says government can help by ensuring regulation and certification systems impose proper standards. “We need a plan from governments so this situation is not repeated with other building materials,” he says.
Jonathan Barnett, managing director of a Melbourne forensic and fire safety company, has drawn the conclusion that building engineering has experienced a failure of self-regulation — “otherwise, why did all these buildings get built?” Statutory regulation is just as much to blame.
Barnett thinks that insurance companies will take the precautionary approach and, in the absence of any definite evidence that the cladding is safe, withdraw insurance cover because if there is a problem in the future the result could cost them dearly.
Regulation and refurbishment are playing catch-up since Grenfell
In the UK, the use of ACM panels is now banned on residential and school buildings above 18 metres high.
Legislation has been enacted in Queensland since the Grenfell Tower disaster. It imposes much greater liability than before down the supply chain for non-compliant materials. More examples of changes made in different legislatures are here.
“The entire building regulatory system is not fit for purpose”
Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations commissioned after the Grenfell fire described the entire UK building regulatory system as “not fit for purpose” and made recommendations for significant change. But it stopped short of recommending a ban on the use of combustible cladding on high rise buildings.
This was before the Stec report appeared.
While any new legislation may preclude these panels being installed in the future on new buildings, there remains the legacy issue of those buildings which already sport such cladding. What is to be done about them?
Tens of thousands of households are stuck in these buildings
Where these buildings are privately owned, central government protocols for local councils to take charge and install safe cladding have failed in around 90 per cent of cases. This has been called an example of “institutional indifference” (a phrase used by survivor Edward Daffarn to describe the authorities before the fire).
Tens of thousands of households are therefore stuck in these buildings – ticking timebombs – leading some to take legal action themselves.
One solution for finding the finance for cladding replacement
For owners struggling to justify the cost of replacing the cladding, it’s worth factoring in the other financial benefits of replacing the exterior cladding: greater protection from overheating, improving airtightness, interior air quality, comfort and reducing heating and air conditioning bills for residents, and, where appropriate, protection from earthquakes.
It’s a great tragedy that it took a disaster like Grenfell to alert authorities to the dangers of cost-cutting and poor project management leading to insensitively installed synthetic insulation – or even, given their toxicity, synthetic insulation at all. A shift to more sustainable (non-fossil-based) alternatives is long overdue.