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Thursday24 August 2017

Grenfell Tower: Fire-safety chief warns of 'endemic' problem

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Group says west London tragedy is the disaster advisers have predicted for years as police confirm six fatalities and expect the number to rise

A fire-safety expert has said the inferno at west London high-rise Grenfell Tower is a disaster of the magnitude housing associations and councils had been repeatedly warned about, but did too little to prevent.

So far the Metropolitan Police has confirmed six deaths after fire ripped through the 24-storey building in the early hours of this morning, but it expects the toll to rise. A further 20 people are in critical condition at local hospitals, according to the force.

As firefighters continued work to bring the blaze at the 44-year-old tower under control, Passive Fire Protection Forum chair Hannah Mansell said industry professionals had “a right to be very angry” at the scale of the tragedy.

“I regularly sit in meetings with fire safety professionals, and their fury and frustration at the inaction of local councils and social landlords is palpable,” she said.
“We have been warning about the risks of a fire like this for years.”

Mansell, whose organisation brings together a range of trade bodies, safety professionals and Department for Communities and Local Government staff, said a frequent response from public sector landlords had been: “What we need to get people to take notice is a huge fire in a tower block”.

She said Grenfell Tower had delivered that result.

“There is an endemic fire safety problem in this type of housing stock,” she said.

“I have walked around tower blocks documenting and filming the fire safety breaches.

“I’ve seen flats without fire doors, no emergency lighting or signage on fire doors and escape routes, broken fire rated glass, wedged-open fire doors, poor fire stopping around service hatches that breach compartmentation, no smoke seals in fire doors, rubbish and combustible material left in the common areas, and no information displayed on the specific fire plan of the building.

“But that information appears to fall on deaf ears. Action must be taken now to address these issues.”

Mansell concluded that every local authority and housing association now knew what to do.

“Take action today: The next one could be tomorrow,” she said.

Grenfell Tower was recently given an upgrade - originally budgeted at £9.4m - that included external re-cladding, window replacements, and the installation of new ventilation and heating systems, with plans drawn up by London-based practice Studio E Architects.

BD’s sister publication Building said the work was carried out by contractor Rydon.

It could take days, if not weeks, for firm details of what caused the fire to spread so rapidly throughout the whole building to emerge, however the London Fire Brigade confirmed that the structure itself was not in danger of collapse.

In the box below, BD editor Thomas Lane trawls Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea planning documents for details of Grenfell Tower and the recently undertaken upgrade work.

Grenfell Tower: What we know

Grenfell tower was constructed in the 1970s. It features four storeys of community and office use at the base of the building with 20 storeys of flats above.

The building features an in-situ concrete core and concrete escape stair and lifts in the centre. The floors are in-situ concrete with the flats arranged around the core. This is a straightforward and standard form of construction that is widely used today.

The building has been upgraded with a new heating and cladding system. The cladding features spandrel panels at cill height with alternating windows and panels above. The windows are a polyester-powder coated aluminium tilt/turn design. The spandrel panels are a rainscreen cassette system fixed to the building. Drawings suggest the cassettes feature a timber coloured backing board with insulation - possibly a foam type material - fixed to this panel. There is a ventilated cavity in front of the insulation which the drawings suggest is approximately 50mm deep.

This cavity features horizontal cavity barriers to prevent the spread of fire. The building is faced with aluminum rainscreen panels. A Reynobond aluminium composite panel was specified. Reynobond aluminum composite panels feature two aluminum sheets sandwiching a core material which gives the panel its rigidity.

According to Reynobond’s website the panels are available in two variants, one with a polyethylene core, which is a type of plastic and a version with a fire retardant mineral core said to provide higher resistance to fire.

Thomas Lane

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Readers' comments (10)

  • The council needs to be taken to court for breach of fire safety rules.

    A very devastating event with innocent people killed and injured. It's a nightmare.

    This a huge wake up call for architects and other associated professions to be more aware of the fire regulations.

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  • Rainscreen cladding relies upon convection through the cavity between the insulant and the fascia to prevent water ingress, however cavity fire barriers should be installed at specified locations to prevent the very same convection transmitting fire through the cavity many times faster due to the effect of the high temperatures as hot air rises very much faster than the design convection rate. In cases where the convection rate is too high, any cavity barriers that are present and not properly and fully fixed will be dislodged and swept away instantaneously, leaving a ‘firestorm’ within the cavity, propagating the fire faster than most people could imagine. Any materials which may be inert and fire resisting at normal temperatures in the rainscreen and insulation system will reach explosive flashpoint and contribute towards the firestorm effect. But the cladding is only part of the situation. A complete lack of adequate escape width for the number of residents is equally to blame as are ‘stay put’ fire strategies. Designing modern buildings requires you to ‘take one escape stair out’ and calculate the escape width on the remaining staircase(s). A ‘medium’ risk building with 600 occupants should have a minimum 3075mm escape width in ‘protected shaft staircases’ with smoke lobbies, and more than one staircase. Surely it’s time to abandon passive fire safety, ‘stay put policies’ and start to retro install additional escape stair towers on the exterior of all tower blocks. It may cost and may lose some flats, but it’s not rocket science, and should be an immediate priority.

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  • Having tooked K&C Building Control was B Regs Approval ever given?
    New floor areas, new overcladding & windows, new heating system, reconfigured podium and entrance.

    Grenfell Tower, Grenfell Road, LONDON, W11 1TH

    Ref. No: FP/14/03563 | Deposited: Thu 04 Sep 2014 | Decided: unknown | Status: Completed Not approved

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    I thought it was a basic principle of good planning that that there must be TWO means of escape so that wherever a fire may break out, you can run away from the fire and still find an escape stair. But it seems there are many high-rise buildings in the UK that only have one escape stair. This is dangerous and unacceptable (but cheaper for developers).

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  • The fire spread outside isn't the issue here - no building will stand up to fire for much more than an hour. But it seems to be the case that many people could not get out after the fire had started. No doubt we will find out the reasons for this, but its probably down to a dated fire system that the recent upgrade didn't address.

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  • I'm with Stephen Walker, surely this has to be missed cavity barriers. That aside, the fact that there was only one escape stair is quite sickening. No smoke seals on the doors as well made it impossible for people to escape into the corridors and to the stairs.

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  • I have always found it extremely worrying that we can build very high blocks of flats with a single stair as long as the travel distance is restricted and a ventilated lobby is provided on each floor. A ventilated lobby is pointless if its doors are wedged open. Yet this is completely in line with current Building Regulations Standards. The Building Regulations are therefore very much to blame for this terrible tragedy and I am sure many architects have mentioned this to Building Control officers before, I certainly have. It doesn't help that they are also very convoluted and conflicting, with many double negative sentences, just to make them even more impossible to understand, especially regarding the fire parts.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    In this case (according to the plan I've seen) there were no stair lobbies at all ventilated or not. The (single) escape stair was accessed directly from the entrance and lift lobby at each floor, and being buried deep within the plan, there was no ventilation and the only ighting was artificial. Not only architecturally nasty, but highly dangerous.

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  • No lessons were learned after Lakanal House, only a few councils followed the coroner’s recommendation and retrofitted their tower blocks with sprinklers. Runneymede Council began a programme to retrofit sprinklers to the flats within its only tower block the 16-storey Surrey Towers in Addlestone in 2015.

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  • I have to query statements that make out the installation of the cladding was according to standards.

    Which standards accept flammable cladding?

    And if it is Part B, then surely the requirement to upgrade other elements of the building would also be required? Otherwise you could end up comprising a building by downgrading one element to a latest standard, while not upgrading other elements that are required to compensate e.g. sprinklers, compartmentation, smoke extraction, and so on.

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