To a New Yorker, the idea that the UK would even need to discuss the merits of a high-rise having two exit stairs would be ludicrous, writes Chris Fogarty

Chris Fogarty Headshot_cropped

Chris Fogarty

New Yorkers have a deep-rooted fear of fire. Local TV morning news often leads with a chopper hovering over a five-alarm fire (referring to the number of separate fire companies called to fight the blaze). Firehouses dot the city, small and often landmarked. My firm’s local firehouse is Hook & Ladder Company 8 in Tribeca, of Ghostbusters fame. Despite knowing it’s irrational, every time the TV blasts out a fire news report, I freeze and focus, hoping it isn’t one of our projects.

After the terrifying images of the Grenfell fire in June 2017 hit the US headlines, articles were written claiming it couldn’t happen here, and the story faded from the news. It wasn’t a US story, and we have plenty of our own homemade dramas to keep us occupied. Tragedies rewrite codes, and 9/11 was NYC’s. Building codes were reassessed and updated, hearings held, and overnight the concepts of security at work and airports changed. The US went to war.

As a Brit, I followed the Grenfell hearings, watched the architects become the fall guys for an entire system designed to fail, and realised the difficulty of explaining to a non-architect why any firm would have a non-licenced person managing such a large project. It’s like explaining to someone who just lost their child during an operation that their surgeon isn’t actually a doctor. Outside of our micro-verse, it makes no sense at all.

So, is there any validity to the statement that it couldn’t happen here, and did we learn anything from Grenfell? As with much in the US, it really depends on where you live. In previous columns, I have covered how zoning and architectural education vary wildly across the country. It’s always worth remembering that the United States is exactly what it says it is – 50 states, each setting its own rules and regulations.

>> Also read: Similar, but not the same: How qualifying as an architect differs between the US and UK

The International Code Council (ICC) was born in 1994 from the merger of three regional code organisations, resulting in the International Building Code (IBC). The term “International” is used with the same hopeful exaggeration as the “World Series” is in American baseball. The IBC is updated every three years and references multiple standards produced by specialist organisations such as the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) and requirements set by ANSI (American National Standards Institute).

Confused? You should be. 

Each state and even city can modify the IBC code for their own particular requirements: California for earthquakes, Florida for hurricanes, New York City (NYC) for high-rise buildings and density, and so forth. They can choose which generation of the code they wish to adopt. For example, New York State uses IBC 2018 with amendments from 2021, while New Jersey uses IBC 2021. NYC uses IBC 2015 with amendments from 2022.


Source: Shutterstock

Cast-iron staircases in New York City

Confused? You should be. Each has differing requirements with respect to egress, energy, accessibility, and so on. The modifications come from localised pressure groups such as the real estate industry, manufacturer trade groups, safety organisations, fire departments, etc. Designing projects within a 10-mile radius of NYC requires a deep knowledge of at least three different sets of codes and which parts are relevant.

For example, no multifamily wood frame buildings are allowed in NYC, even though it is the most common form of construction across the country. You can use “scissor stairs” for egress in NYC residential buildings, whereas fire stairs in the rest of the country must be a minimum of 30 feet apart. Handicapped wheelchair clearances are seven inches wider in New Jersey than in NYC, and so on.

To a New Yorker, the idea that the UK would even need to discuss the merits of a high-rise having two exit stairs would be ludicrous

One of the most common arguments against the possibility of a mass casualty fire here is that high-rise buildings, since the early 20th century, have had at least two means of egress. After the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911, which resulted in the deaths of 146 people in a building with only one fire stair, the city mandated that tenement, factory, and loft buildings install wrought iron fire escapes on their front or rear facades. In the event of a fire, tenants can either use the rated internal stairway or exit through their windows and descend the metal fire escapes. These fire escapes define the character of many of NYC’s older neighbourhoods like Soho and Tribeca.

To a New Yorker, the idea that the UK would even need to discuss the merits of a high-rise having two exit stairs would be ludicrous; it’s just so ingrained in the building codes. Similarly, we rely heavily on sprinklers for life safety. According to the NFPA, there has never been a loss of more than two lives due to fire in any fully sprinklered residential or commercial building, except for 9/11 and similar disasters. However, the installation of sprinklers was only mandated for all new NYC residential buildings as recently as 2018.



Source: Shutterstock

Charred remains of the Grenfell Tower block in which 72 people died, more than 70 were injured, and many others experienced massive trauma

Although no longer in the US headlines, the Grenfell Tower fire significantly impacted recent US building codes. US aluminum composite material (ACM) panel manufacturers claimed that a similar event couldn’t happen here because the highly flammable polyethylene (PE) core used in the Grenfell facade is not permitted in US high-rise buildings. Instead, only panels with a fire-resistant (FR) core are allowed. However, that wasn’t entirely the case. In 2012, the industry had lobbied the ICC to relax the code and allow high-rise buildings to use the cheaper PE cores if they were installed on only 50% of the façade.

The current code also requires extensive fire blocking for ACM paneled facades, but exemptions are made for almost any building if it is fully sprinklered. In response to the Grenfell fire, the IBC finally prohibited the use of any ACM with PE cores on buildings taller than 40 feet in 2021. NYC went even further and decided in 2022 to require fire blocking on all ACM panel assemblies and continuous foam facades, even in fully sprinklered buildings.

The complexity and cost of fire blocking have essentially banned such assemblies in any new high-rise buildings in NYC. Terracotta and other non-combustible materials such as standard metal panels and porcelain are fine and we have been using them on many of our recent projects.

As architects, we need to always remain vigilant and proactive

The IBC and NFPA enforce a rigorous fire spread testing process. Any cladding product or combination of products is tested on a full-scale two-story mockup before being approved for use. Manufacturers can work around the tests though using “Engineering Judgment” reports, which allows them to prove that their products would perform as well as the relevant NFPA standards without subjecting them to the same rigorous mockup process. NYC does not allow Engineering Judgment reports for façade assemblies, but you can see that just like in the UK, many of the same fault lines exist here that led to the Grenfell disaster.

A good example of this is a recent issue we had with a client who value-engineered out the precast concrete facades on two residential towers in Brooklyn with 3D-printed Styrofoam (the buildings were filed prior to the new 2022 code). We only discovered this when I went to review the mockup. It took months to convince them not to use this product, burning up fees and man-hours, and succeeding only after we said we would have nothing to do with the selection or sign-off of the alternative. This was an obvious case. Most substitutions are normally more insidious, on items that don’t visually affect a project and slip in without a full analysis of all their consequential impacts.

So, Grenfell and its aftermath has had a deep and meaningful impact on fire safety and building codes in the US, particularly in NYC. While we have robust regulations, the variability in codes across the country creates vulnerabilities and confusion. As architects, we need to always remain vigilant and proactive.

We must train our staff to prioritise life safety in their designs, understand the nuances of building codes, and work closely with consultants to ensure compliance. By doing so, we can hopefully work towards preventing similar tragedies in the future.

>> Also read: Six years on from Grenfell and real change is happening. Don’t leave it too late to get up to speed