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UK High-Rise Fire Turns Eyes to Cladding Work

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

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A high-rise block with similar cladding to the Grenfell Tower caught fire in London late last week. No one was killed, but the incident highlights delays responsibility arguments regarding remediation of the many similar buildings across the city.

The fire reportedly broke just before 9 a.m. local time on Friday, on the eighth floor of a 19-story apartment building in the New Providence Wharf development. The building is clad with aluminum-composite material—the same that was used on the Grenfell Tower, which caught fire in June 2017, a blaze that killed 72 people.

The fire itself spread through properties over three stories while smoke spread across at least six floors, according to video footage. Residents who couldn’t get out through the hallways sought help from their balconies where several were rescued by firefighters. Two men were taken to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation while 38 adults and four children were treated at the scene by paramedics.

The London Fire Brigade sent 20 fire engines and about 125 firefighters to the blaze, though witnesses notes that the fire engine to arrive on the scene couldn’t reach the fire.

“The fire was on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors resulting in us carrying out 35 rescues, 22 using our fire escape hoods, and a further 18 people self-evacuated,” said Deputy LFB Commissioner Richard Mills. “This was a very dynamic and challenging incident and clearly there will be some people that will be looking at this and linking it to the tragic events of the Grenfell Tower fire.”

After the fire was extinguished a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government admonished Ballymore, the structure’s developer, who has not begun work on refurbishing the high-rise’s facade, saying that the ministry has been in regular contact with the developer for two years urging them to make progress.

The developer, meanwhile, contends that the government is to blame for the delays citing the process involved to receive funding.

Actually, Ballymore had just notified residents earlier last week that work was to begin Monday (May 10). The cost of fixing the building is estimated to be at about 11.6 million pounds ($16.4 million). Reportedly, the government will be covering 8 million pounds while Ballymore has said that it will contribute 500,000 pounds, leaving the rest (3.1 million pounds) up to the leaseholders of the building. The work is now reportedly pushed back to start next month.

The fire pushes remediation delays across the United Kingdom back into the spotlight as government aid and responsibility has varied widely.

Grenfell and Cladding Background

During the early hours of June 14, 2017, a fire broke out in one of west London’s high-rises, the Grenfell Tower. The 24-story, 120-home apartment building had recently undergone a $12.73 million renovation that was completed in the spring of 2016.

At that time, the building was refurbished with a system of polyester powder-coated aluminum rain-screen panels, insulated exterior cladding and double-glazed windows, as well as a communal heating system.

In April of 2018, new investigations revealed that the cladding fitted on the Grenfell Tower had been downgraded before it was installed on the London high-rise. According to tests that BBC News uncovered from 2014 and 2015, a zinc cladding had originally been specified for the tower, but another brand was substituted for a savings of roughly $388,700.

The following month, former Prime Minister Theresa May pledged $517.9 million to cover the replacement of unsafe cladding for social housing blocks. Privately owned towers were left to figure out the replacements on their own, however.

As a result, many property owners passed the renovation charges to residents, which in some cases cost them thousands of dollars to make their homes safe again. Many more still have yet to even begin the renovation process.

In December 2018, the U.K. announced a ban on combustible materials. Former housing secretary James Brokenshire announced that under the new legislation, combustible materials would not be permitted in the exterior walls for new buildings more than 18 meters (59 feet) tall. Those buildings include homes, hospitals, residential care facilities, dormitories and other student accommodations.

That ban limits the use of materials to products that achieve a European fire-resistance rating of Class A1 or A2. The legislation also cleared up what exactly the government meant by an “exterior wall,” defining it as an external wall as anything “located within any space forming part of the wall.” It also includes any decoration or finishes applied to external surfaces, windows or doors; roof pitches at an angle of more than 70 degrees; balconies and devices for deflecting sunlight and solar panels.

The policy also prohibits the use of timber materials in the external wall of buildings in those parameters as well, which will stop many project in their tracks, according to the Architects’ Journal, referring to developers using the cross-laminated timber construction method.

The materials ban took effect Dec. 21, 2018, but in December 2019 part of the ban was overhauled following a lawsuit by the British Blind & Shutter Association. (The court rules that the ban should not have included materials used on shutters, blinds and other products designed to reduce a building’s heat gain.)

In May 2019, the U.K.’s Ministry of Housing announced that it would foot the bill to replace the cladding on private residential high-rise blocks at the cost of roughly 200 million pounds ($258.9 million).

At the beginning of 2020, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick put forth new measures with the goal to move “faster and further to improve building safety” adding: “The slow pace of improving building safety standards will not be tolerated.”

Jenrick put forth several things for consultation on Monday (Jan. 20) including:

  • Extend the cladding ban from buildings 18 meters tall to 11 meters;
  • Extend the mandate of sprinklers in buildings from 30 meters to 11 meters;
  • A new regulator for building safety will start operating in shadow form under the Health and Safety Executive;
  • The U.K.’s first national chief inspector of buildings will be recruited shortly; and
  • Begin releasing the names of high-rise owners who have not begun remediation work.

The proposal was met with praise from industry members, such as the Royal Institute of British Architects.

In June, an investigation by the United Kingdom’s National Audit Office has revealed that the government doesn’t know how many of its estimated 85,000 buildings 11-18 meters tall are clad with the same ACM material that was used on Grenfell Tower.

The NAO said at the time that remediation of the buildings could last until 2022 at least.

As of April that same year, there were still 307 towers that still have unsafe ACM cladding systems, with work not even having begun on 167 of them and work complete on 149.

The office also noted that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has advised that the ACM cladding in question is unsafe on buildings of any height, which illuminated gaps in the department’s knowledge as it has admitted that it has no data on the number of buildings under 18 meters that have those cladding systems.

The report also noted that about 14% of private buildings have been remediated, adding that the government has paid out only about 0.7% of its promised funds for privately owned buildings.

This is compared to the 33% it has paid out of its social housing cladding remediation fund.


Tagged categories: Building envelope; Building Envelope; Cladding; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); EU; Fire; Government; Health and safety; Safety

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