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Building Errors Were Behind Grenfell Tragedy

A variety of missteps during a London retrofit turned a safe building into a tinderbox

Posted on May 29 2018 by Scott Gibson

Botched details in a two-year refurbishment of a London high-rise turned what had been a safe concrete tower into a "tinderbox" that contributed to the deaths of 72 tenants, a British newspaper reports.

The Evening Standard said it had obtained a report from investigators at BRE Global. The report blamed the disaster not only on the combustible materials that were used to reclad the building's exterior but also on poorly executed building details.

The fire reportedly began in a refrigerator-freezer in an apartment on the fourth floor. Flames might have been contained to a single apartment, but instead traveled through a window near the refrigerator and raced up the side of the 24-story building. Were it not for the replacement claddingMaterials used on the roof and walls to enclose a house, providing protection against weather. — an aluminum-clad material with a polyethylene core called Reynobond — not a single life would have been lost, the newspaper said.

The cladding was added to the tower during a two-year retrofit completed in 2016.

Multiple problems to blame

In addition to using combustible cladding, builders also failed to meet fire-safety standards in several ways, according to the report:

  • Barriers within wall cavities that should have prevented the vertical travel of flames were of "insufficient size specification" and some of the cavity barriers were installed incorrectly. The result was a chimney-like path allowing flames to spread.
  • Window frames didn't completely fill the gap between concrete columns, and none of the materials used to fill out those spaces was able to provide 30 minutes of fire resistance. This building detail provided a "direct route for fire spread around the window frame into the cavity of the facade ... and from the facade back into flats," the report says.
  • Contrary to building regulations, many apartment front doors lacked automatic closing mechanisms. When residents fled their apartments, doors remained open, allowing "large quantities of smoke and later fire" to pour into areas near the doors an then into elevators and the single stairwell.

Another problem was the lack of a "wet rising main" — a fully charged water main rising through the tower that would have provided water for firefighting. When the building was remodeled, an existing dry main was extended and modified. The main, however, had to be powered by a single fire engine on the east side of the building because landscaping on other sides of the tower made them inaccessible to firefighting equipment. A single fire engine didn't have the power to provide enough pressure and water flow for firefighters at the top of the tower.

The building also lacked a sprinkler system.

An official inquiry into the fire is currently underway, but as The Guardian reports, a number of key government ministers and executives of companies involved in the building overhaul have so far stayed away. Testimony to date has focused on the victims.

The Evening Standard said it had shown the investigative report to an architect and got this reaction:

"These findings could result in people going to prison. But the report has left open the vital question as to whether the design or the installation was at fault, whether the works were approved and/or inspected, or whether it was a combination of all of these.

“The buck stops with the owner of the building Kensington and Chelsea council, and its management organisation, which have ultimate duty of care. Some people will not be sleeping well at night once this report is made public. You read it and think: heads are going to roll.”


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Image Credits:

  1. Mémoire2Cité / Flickr

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May 29, 2018 11:20 AM ET

Lessons For Us
by Malcolm Taylor

The inhabitants of Grenfell Towers in some ways were in a similar position to anyone who lives or visits a home we as builders or owners work on. They have no idea of the risks they may be facing, or what hidden dangers exist.

That's why it is incumbent on us to follow codes and make sure we create a safe environment whenever we build or modify houses. It isn't enough to say that you live in an area where codes don't apply, or aren't enforced, that you didn't know what was required, or had other more pressing concerns. Anyone who touches a house should know what they are doing and the implications of their work on the safety of it's inhabitants.


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