If regulations were followed, the Grenfell Tower inferno should have been impossible
GEOFF WILKINSON • 14 JUNE 2017 • 9:56PM
I am a building inspector and fire engineer with 30 years’ experience. I’ve overseen numerous projects across London, including new builds and refurbishments, making sure buildings comply with the proper regulations, and post-occupation fire risk assessments. Given my experience, I was shocked by the blaze which engulfed Grenfell Tower in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
At this point in time it’s very hard to tell precisely what went wrong. We don’t know where the fire started and we don’t know how it spread. What we can say for sure is how the building should have performed – and that it definitely did not perform that way. If regulations were followed, what happened at Grenfell Tower should never have been possible, and there are very big question which need to be answered. There are already suggestions that proper planning procedures were not followed.
Normally, British fire regulations assume that fires will start in one location only – and normally, this is completely reasonable. In a big tower block like Grenfell, each individual flat is a fire-tight box from which flames should not be able to escape, and a fire which starts in one tends to stay in it. That is why residents are usually advised to stay within their own rooms and wait for rescue. The fire service should arrive within ten minutes, ascend the building, and tackle the fire where it burns, while other residents sit quite happily in place.
This is also why we shouldn't be disturbed by reports from Grenfell that there was no common alarm system installed. Most residential blocks don’t have common alarms, because they could trigger a mass panic in which everyone tries to evacuate via the same stairwell which the fire service are using to reach the fire. Unlike in a hotel, there are no fire trained fire wardens to safely direct such an evacuation. In the event that a fire grows too large, firefighters might sometimes decide to evacuate the floor immediately above. Otherwise, it’s better everyone stays where they are. That policy has worked several hundred times over the past few years without a problem.
What happened at Grenfell was something else entirely. Firefighters were on site six minutes after being called, which is within expectations. But it is extremely unusual for the fire to spread this far and with this speed and ferocity. Within half an hour or so it had travelled way beyond the first flat, making it very difficult for the fire services to control it. Even more worryingly, survivors have reported that stairwells and lobbies were choked with smoke, which should never happen: there are supposed to be means of clearing smoke from such areas. In those circumstances, “stay and hide” becomes obsolete.
And yet to me the fire spread still had a horrifying familiarity. This has happened before, and – if we are not careful – it may happen again.
In Knowsley Heights in Manchester in 1991, fire spread in a way no one had predicted via the decorative cladding on the outside of the building. These plastic or metal panels are installed to protect a building from weather or improve its appearance, but between them and the wall there is a cavity where rain can run down. In the event of a fire this acts like a chimney, drawing the hot air up through itself and making the flames burn brighter. In this way fire travelled all the way up from the base of the building to the very top.
Something similar happened in Irvine in 1999, after which new regulations were put out which limited the types of cladding which could be used. In particular, they mandated barriers at various points in the cavity, blocking off the “chimney” on all sides. And in 2014 Grenfell’s landlords decided to install exactly this kind of cladding in order to “improve its appearance” when viewed from the luxury flats nearby. The Guardian has reported that some panels used in modern cladding are only fire-proofed on the surface, behind which is up to 30cm of highly flammable polyurethane. If true, that is a major non-conformance with regulations. But even if not, were the proper firebreaks put in place behind the panels?
Once spread via cladding, the fire could have caught on curtains blowing through windows left open on a hot summer’s night. Again this is believed to have been a factor in the Lakanal House fire in 2009. That disaster occurred on a very similar night to this one.
Even if this proves to be correct, however, the building should still have been safe. For the fire to spread internally after that point it would still have to get through the fire door in the individual room, through another fire door at the front of the flat, and through yet more doors in the corridor outside. Clearly there has been a failure of multiple systems: for one to fail is perhaps understandable, but for so many to have failed all at once, in the modern era, is entirely unheard of.
The investigation will of course look into this. But another explanation may lie in reports, as yet unsubstantiated, that works were recently carried out to the gas main that runs vertically up the building. If the contractors carrying out those works did not replace the necessary fire protection after finishing, that would be an easy way for fire to spread. Anything that creates a path for fire can and will be used in that fashion. Even a drill-hole of four inches in diameter can be enough. And if there are combustible materials in ducts – plastic pipes, plastic wires – flames can creep rapidly through a building without the fire service even knowing.
The Lakanal House fire led to specific recommendations. All landlords were given clear, copious information on fire precautions and told to undertake regular risk assessments. People like me then go around the tower blocks checking for ducts that need to be blocked or cladding that needs to be fixed. The problem is that we never really know whether the works we recommend are actually carried out, or, if they were, how long they took. There is no easy way to check whether landlords have carried out their duty.
Worse, there is an ongoing issue around contractors who don’t understand what they need to do to ensure fire safety. Anyone who the landlord allows to alter or amend a building, in any way, shape or form, must be made aware of which walls are fire walls and which materials need to be replaced after they’re done. That, too, doesn’t always happen.
We shouldn’t overstate the danger. There are literally thousands of blocks like this across the UK and there are probably several hundred fires which start in them every year. These fires usually don’t spread and are dealt with in exactly the expected fashion; more people probably die in fires in two- or three-storey houses than in tower blocks.
Nevertheless, the standard of safety across London is highly variable. Some landlords are right on top of it, and act on issues that are reported within a matter of hours. Others don’t give fire safety the priority that it requires.
What’s frustrating is that we are all familiar with going into a toilet block and seeing a register on the wall to show that someone has gone round to check it is clean. There’s no such process for fire safety. Perhaps we need to make landlords post evidence of regular risk assessments in communal areas so residents can see exactly what has been checked and what hasn’t. Or perhaps we need to give fire brigades the resources to conduct building inspections themselves, as they did back in the 1970s. Nowadays, buildings are effectively self-certified.
Whether regulations and recommendations were followed in this case will come out in the wash. But indications on the council's website indicate the building was approved on a "building notice". This type of fast track planning application saves the need to submit detailed proposals and plans to the building inspector and relies on the experience of the inspector to recognise and approve the works by eye. This type of application is wholly inappropriate for large complex buildings and should only be used on small, simple domestic buildings.
Nobody can turn around after Knowsley, Irvine and Lakanal and say they didn’t know there were risks. The guidance was there, the instructions were clear, and we knew the problem. The question is now whether we will do anything about it.
[Geoff Wilkinson is the managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants]