The horrific disaster at Grenfell Tower block in London is the worst fire in Britain since World War II, and it is likely the final death toll will be in the hundreds. The nation is horrified, grief-stricken and angry. Residents in blocks of flats everywhere across the country are asking themselves the same question: “Could this happen here?”
The 1970s-built Grenfell Tower was refurbished at a cost of £8.6 million (AU$14.4m) in 2015 and 2016. Work included rain screen cladding, a curtain wall façade and replacement windows to improve thermal insulation and modernise the exterior. It is this cladding which is a particular focus of interest. But that is by no means all.
A public inquiry will be held, but frightened residents across the country are demanding immediate action, because already the likely causes of the fire are crystal clear – and they are not all technical.
On the morning of the fire, someone on Twitter wrote: “These people died because they were poor”. Could this be true?
Local authorities and fire authorities are urgently checking each of the 4000 blocks in Britain with the same fire regulations applied to determine the type of cladding used and what other fire risks there may be.
Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, has promised that whatever is recommended by the public inquiry will be done, no matter the cost. But the public is sceptical, because recommendations that could have prevented this fire, made in earlier reports on previous fires, have not been acted upon.
The reasons why the fire was able to spread so rapidly – an observer described it as like a piece of paper going up in flames – can be divided into technical and cultural factors. Any professional involved in energy efficiency will tell you that the technical problems are easy to solve, but that changing attitudes is much, much harder.
- Cladding: Celotex (PIR) RS500 polyisocanurate foam – highly flammable, banned in the US for this use. For an extra £5000 (AU$8370) for the whole block, mineral wool cladding could have been used instead. A criminal inquiry will determine whether anyone may be culpable for making this choice.
- No external zoning: the recently refurbished external cladding did not have fire breaks to prevent any fire spreading.
- Lack of sprinklers: Building regulations in force when the block was constructed in the 1970s did not require sprinklers.
- No second staircase: this could have aided escape.
- No fire seals where there are service penetrations.
- No internal zoning: no fire doors were installed or other means of preventing fire spreading.
Arnold Turling, a member of the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP), says the Grenfell blaze was “entirely avoidable”. The gap between the insulation panels and the external wall permitted updraft.
“Any burning material falls down the gaps and the fire spreads up very rapidly – it acts as its own chimney.”
A London Fire Brigade investigation into a fire in another nearby tower block in August 2016 found that external cladding had helped the fire to spread. The metal sheet of the cladding had melted, allowing the polystyrene foam behind it to ignite.
“Flaming droplets” fell onto lower floors and flames soared upwards. The Brigade wrote to every council in London to warn them of the dangers but no action was taken.
Mark Coles, head of technical regulations at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, has said, “The advice given to residents was that, in the event of a fire, the occupants should remain in their properties. The speed at which this fire spread would suggest that there has been a serious failure in the design and installation techniques employed.”
It is not just in retrospect that it can be seen that fixing these problems is relatively straightforward. The tenants themselves already knew. They repeatedly told the building’s managers that they needed these measures but were repeatedly ignored, at times during acrimonious meetings.
Local councillor Judith Blakeman, who sits on the building’s management board, KCTMO, raised residents’ fears, for example, about the installation of gas pipes in the stairwells. The landlord promised they would be boxed in with “fire-rated” protection, but this was not done, Blakeman said. She requested an independent safety adjudication, but this was refused too.
After a fire at another apartment block, Lakanal House, in South London in 2009, both the coroner and a government committee, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, made recommendations for a major review of part B of the Building Regulations 2010. The Secretary of State responsible at the time, Eric Pickles, promised an updated version of building regulations for 2016/17, but this has not happened, despite assurances from former housing minister Gavin Barwell – just appointed as Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff.
The local authority responsible for Lakanal House also did not listen or act upon concerns.
Secretary of the All Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, Ronnie King, has commented, “We have made strong pleas to government get the regulations reviewed. We have said that there is going to be a tragedy and you will be held responsible. I have always said that this is going to be ‘stable door’ legislation. They only react when there is a major loss of life.”
This reaction – of not listening, and putting off making decisions – has proven catastrophically fatal, and it has gone right up the command chain. In local authorities, building control, planning law, and the government.
Cutting red tape won’t help; it is what allowed this to happen
Some are using the tragedy to suggest that green regulations from the European Union – the requirement to insulate homes – are responsible. On the contrary, insulation has made residents’ lives healthier, more comfortable, cut fuel bills and curbed greenhouse gas emissions.
The answer is not to cut red tape. It is successive governments’ fear of red tape that has allowed this to happen. There has been no shortage of good advice over the last two decades, resulting from a great many case studies, of what type of building retrofits and standards produce the best results for energy efficiency and safety.
Residents of Grenfell Tower Block also point to the fact that it is poor people who have been marginalised. One told ITV’s News at Ten program that a Conservative councillor told the residents to stop whining and complaining and that “you should be grateful we have spent £10 million on refurbishing your block”.
Jill Curnick, who had lived on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower and who went to residents’ association meetings, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that the problem was cultural.
“The broader, systemic issues need to be addressed, with better channels of communication so that building managers listen to those on the ground. We need a culture that is about taking care of people,” she said.
The ASFP is developing an overarching Construction Strategy to encourage collaborative working across the whole design and build process to improve the quality of installed fire protection within the built environment.
But that is only part of it – building managers must listen and respond to residents. Cost must not be an excuse for inaction. If nothing else, fear of criminal liability should force them to act.
The coming days, weeks and months will throw up more evidence as to why the fire happened and why it was so devastating. But it is clear already that this type of cultural shift has to happen, and fast, to prevent any further similar disasters, no matter what the expense, for you cannot put a price on human life.
David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, building refurbishment and renewable energy. See his website here.