Experts Look At Cladding After Fatal London Fire
A cloud of speculation surrounds the cause of the fatal fire that tore through a London high-rise early Wednesday morning (June 14).
At least 12 people have died as of Wednesday afternoon in the blaze at Grenfell Tower. More than 70 are injured and dozens more are unaccounted for from the 24-story, 120-home apartment building that housed at least 400 people.
The number of fatalities is expected to rise. Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy told the BBC, “This is going to be a long and complex recovery operation and I do anticipate that the number of fatalities will sadly increase beyond those 12."
The fire was first reported at 12:54 a.m. and began on the second floor, quickly spreading up the exterior of the building. The cause was also speculated (early reports pointed to a malfunctioning appliance), but London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton dismissed that, saying it was too early to make such speculations.
However, the bigger points of concern for many was not what cause the fire, but what caused the fire to spread.
Many experts—in fire and architecture alike—are quickly pointing the blame at the building’s façade and envelope for why the blaze engulfed the entire building instead of being contained to the ignited area.
The Building’s Facade
The reinforced concrete building had recently undergone a £10 million ($12.73 million) renovation that wrapped up 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.
This type of renovation is not uncommon for towers originally construction in the 1960s or ‘70s, and recently, many of those renovations have gone under review, according to an architect who spoke with The Guardian.
That professional (whom the outlet did not identify) also noted that the rain-screen system that was used on Grenfell Tower would have been designed to include fire-breaks at every floor and around every window, if installed correctly.
“The issue is the cavity between the existing wall and the rain screen,” he said. “There needs to be firestops at every floor level and around every window.”
Such framework is regulation in the U.K.
A Member of Parliament and former firefighter, Mike Penning, told The Independent he thought the culprit was clear.
"The cladding was clearly spreading the fire," said Penning. "We need to find out what went on."
The Sydney Morning Herald made comparisons between the Grenfell fire and fires in Melbourne and Roubaix, France. The Melbourne high-rise was fitted with the same aluminum composite material as the London tower. The Mermoz Tower in France was also refurbished “with flammable cladding.”
Inside The Building
In addition to the material on the outside of the building, there were questions about safety inside. Grenfell was only fitted with one escape staircase (which was the focus of a complaint issued by residents in January 2016, when renovations were being made) and no sprinkler system, which is also allegedly not uncommon for older high-rises in the United Kingdom.
Residents say that the alarms did not go off and that building management—the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation—had employed a “stay put policy” in the case of a fire.
Experts say, however, that such a policy and such a staircase were not designed for a mass incident, but for the event of if a small number of residencies were on fire (with the assumption that the fire would be contained to the ignited floor). The exit stairwell was located on the side of the building at which the fire occurred.
That same policy had been placed under review last year and multiple changes had been made, including the installation of self-closing doors and more of an effort to deal with hoarders and clutter in the building’s mixed-use communal areas (of which there are four).
However, the Grenfell Action Group had warned the organization about dangerous living conditions and said in a statement in November 2016 that: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO.”
The KCTMO did receive a deficiency notice from the LFB for another one of its properties, The Guardian notes.
According to KCTMO papers, however, through work with the LFB, several firefighters attended an on-site briefing of safety features of the building in an effort to familiarize with the high-rise.
The fire remains under investigation. So far, Harley Facades Limited, the façade specialist contractor that worked on the building, has only commented, saying, “It is devastating what has happened. It is absolutely awful. Until we have more information ourselves, we can’t comment.”
Rydon, the main contractor that did the renovations, also expressed condolences and said, “We are shocked to hear of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower and our immediate thoughts are with those that have been affected by the incident, their families, relatives and friends. Rydon completed a refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016 for KCTMO on behalf of the Council, which met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards.”
The architect, Studio E., also expressed devastation and declined to comment further.
By Wednesday afternoon the LFB has begun using a drone to enter upper floors of the building to assess damage and look for more potential fatalities.
Policing and fire minister Nick Hurd said checks were now planned on towers that have gone through similar refurbishment and that they will “run a system of checks and inspections.”