London's Grenfell Fire: Will Plastics Be Inappropriately Blamed?

By Kirk Grundahl, P.E. and Sean Shields

Editor's Note:  Energy Efficiency & Building Science News is publishing these stories to raise awareness of information publicly available online and does not, nor cannot, vouch for the validity of any claims made in the following articles.

At least 79 people have died in a huge fire raged through the night at a west London 24-storey tower block called Grenfell Tower. Below are excerpts from various news sources (as noted) that make the case that sprinklers would have saved lives had they been installed in Grenfell Tower.

Videos of the Blaze

Grenfell Tower fire "like a warzone"

London tower block fire: What went wrong at Grenfell Tower?

West London Grenfell Tower on fire, multiple casualties confirmed (Recorded LIVE FEED)

68 Luxury Flats to Be Given to Families Displaced by Grenfell Fire

An Example of Why Sprinklers Could Have Saved Lives at Grenfell (from the Charlotte Observer)

Newly built apartments in Charlotte are required to have sprinkler systems, but those sprinklers are typically designed to give renters enough time to escape the building, not save the whole structure. That means you could make it out of an apartment fire but still lose your possessions.

The Link apartments, adjacent to the Raleigh building that burned, suffered major heat and smoke damage to the side that faced the Metropolitan, as well as water damage. Charlotte-based Grubb Properties developed the Link, which opened in 2016 and was 94 percent occupied.

As the Metropolitan fire grew (see video link), it triggered the sprinklers at the Link building. That kept the building from actually catching fire and allowed the hundreds of residents to evacuate.

“The fire alarms went off, the sprinklers went off, everyone did what they were supposed to and evacuated the building,” Grubb spokeswoman Emily Ethridge said. “Everything worked the way it was supposed to.”

The 241-unit Metropolitan apartments were about 40 percent complete, according to the CEO of Chicago-based owner Banner Development. That means that although most of the main structure was in place, the interior safety features meant to blunt a fire’s spread weren’t installed.

“It was just bad luck,” said Banner CEO William Henry. The company plans to rebuild on the site.

“Whatever happened, whether it was set or it was an accident, it was exactly at the right time to maximize damage,” said Jim Anthony, CEO of Collier’s International in Raleigh, another developer of multifamily housing that uses wood-frame construction.

While apartment buildings in Charlotte and elsewhere are a fire risk during construction, occupants should feel safe once construction is complete, said Solomon of the NFPA. Once a certificate of occupancy is issued, buildings have Sheetrock shielding the wood, sprinklers and automatic alarm systems.

“Once the building is buttoned up, those occupants should feel very safe being in a structure like that,” he said.

Grenfell Tower’s Cladding Scrutinized

Reynobond aluminum composite panels is an aluminum panel consisting of two coil-coated aluminum sheets that are fusion bonded to both sides of a polyethylene core. It has all the required European fire performance certifications. This includes testing to the British standard BS476 “Fire tests on building materials and structures: Test methods and criteria for the fire resistance of elements of building construction, British Standards, U.K.”

2014 Fire Protection Research Foundation Report Studies Exterior Wall Assemblies  (from FPRF report)

It’s valuable to review the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) report “Fire Hazards of Exterior Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components.” This linked version has key text highlighted, which can be found when the following key words are searched for: British test, BS476, aluminum skins, polyethylene core and sprinklers.

The FPRF initiated this research project with the goal of developing the technical basis for fire mitigation strategies for exterior wall systems containing combustible components. The initial phase compiled information on typical fire scenarios which involve exterior walls, collect relevant test methods and criteria, as well as other approval/regulatory requirements for these systems, and to identify the knowledge gaps and the recommended fire scenarios and testing approaches to investigate further.

One noteworthy observation concerned the 32-story Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino constructed in 1994, which is the only fire reviewed that was similar to Grenfell Tower in that the fire spread to the interior of the building and sprinkler activation could have made a difference in mitigating fire spread:

“The fire started before 11 am on 25 January 2008. Ignition of the exterior wall was attributed to welding on a catwalk on the roof parapet wall. The exterior cladding materials first ignited on the left side (as viewed from the exterior) of the central core area. The fire then progressed laterally. The adjacent materials on the right side of central core facade began to burn and the fire continued to propagate laterally over these decorative materials. The fire also moved to the left along the upper portion of the west tower and began to involve the cladding materials. Over time, the fire on the west tower moved laterally approximately 24 m. The fire did spread downwards, however not any further than the 29th floor. Heat from the exterior fire broke several windows however internal sprinklers halted any fire spread to the interior guest rooms. A Total of 17 sprinklers activated.”

This report simply provides a foundation of knowledge and does not draw any definitive conclusions.

Investigators Left With Six Questions (from the BBC)

1. How did the fire start?

Firefighters were called to Grenfell Tower in Latimer Road at 00:54 BST on Wednesday and the fire was brought under control at 01:14 BST the following day.

The fire is believed to have started on the fourth floor. The cause remains unknown.

Met Police Commander Stuart Cundy said police have investigated what is believed to be the location of where the fire started.

There is nothing to suggest it was started deliberately.

Tower blocks are designed so fires should stay contained within individual flats. But this clearly did not happen.

In 2009, three women and three children were killed by a fire in the 14-storey Lakanal House, in Camberwell, south-east London, which started in a TV set on the ninth floor.

Southwark Council admitted it had failed to address fire risks and was fined £270,000, plus £300,000 in costs

2. Why did the fire spread so quickly?

Footage has shown the fire spreading up one side of the building externally, before engulfing the entire block.

Fire safety expert Elvin Edwards described it as a "chimney effect", adding that the wind would have fanned the flames.

Cladding can create cavities which in some cases can cause a chimney effect, drawing flames up the cavity if there are no fire barriers.

It is unclear whether Grenfell Tower was fitted with fire barriers.

The London Fire Brigade's aerial platform vehicles can reach heights of only about 32m (105ft) - limiting how high up the blaze can be fought.

Having to get 20 storeys up to rescue people in that situation "is just unbelievable", firefighter turned safety consultant Bob Parkin said.

Matt Wrack, of the Fire Brigades Union, said something had clearly gone badly wrong with fire prevention procedures at the building.

Before and during a recent refurbishment, the local Grenfell Action Group said the block constituted a fire risk and residents warned that site access for emergency vehicles was "severely restricted".

3. Should there have been alarms and sprinklers?

The block - which was built in 1974 - did not have a sprinkler system.

Under current law, all new residential blocks over 30m high must have sprinkler systems fitted.

There is no legal requirement for local authorities to retrofit sprinklers to tower blocks.

MP Ronnie King, honorary secretary of the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, told LBC Radio there were about 4,000 tower blocks that did not have fire sprinklers fitted.

He said after the fire in Lakanal House there had been a "recommendation, which was down to each local council and landlords to determine the appropriateness" regarding fitting sprinklers in some blocks.

The coroner in the inquest into the fire also recommended that the government encouraged providers of high-rise building to consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems.

In Wales, sprinklers are compulsory for all newly-built houses and blocks of flats, as well as care homes and university halls of residence.

Paul Fuller, chairman of the Fire Sector Federation, said sprinklers could have helped lessen the impact of the fire.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme: "We know that sprinklers are effective.

"Also, sprinklers will make the environment more survivable by containing the fire and containing the smoke. But they are not a total solution."

The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA), the trade body for the fire sprinkler industry, said retrofitting the building with sprinklers might have cost £200,000.

Rydon Construction carried out the £8.6m refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, which was completed in May last year.

The leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nick Paget-Brown, said Grenfell Tower was not fitted with sprinklers during the refurbishment as the authority was told that fires in high-rises should be able to be contained within the flat of origin.

He told BBC's Newsnight there was also not a "collective view" by residents to retrofit sprinklers in all flats as it would have delayed and caused further disruption to the upgrade.

Some residents have also reported not hearing fire alarms.

Alarms will often go off only on the floor affected, according to fire expert Elfyn Edwards.

4. Did a renovation in 2016 affect the building's safety?

Rydon Construction, which carried out the refurbishment of the 24-storey tower, said it had delivered a "number of improvements" to community facilities and energy efficiency to the building.

"Externally, rain screen cladding, curtain wall facade and replacement windows were fitted, improving thermal insulation and modernising the exterior of the building," it said.

Fire safety experts have already pointed to cladding on the building as a possible reason the blaze spread so quickly externally.

The cladding requested for the refurbishment had a metal outer coating and an expanded foam interior.

It had a polyethylene - or plastic - core instead of an even more fireproof alternative, BBC Newsnight understands.

However, experts told the programme that cladding with a mineral core is considered to be less flammable.

The Times reported that the particular type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower is banned in the US on buildings taller than 40ft (12m) - for fire safety reasons.

It says the manufacturer makes two fire-resistant alternatives, but they are more expensive.

The paper calculates the difference in cost at Grenfell Tower would have amounted to less than £5,000 for the entire building.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said that if the cladding used was a composite aluminium panel with a polyethylene core, it would be non-compliant with current building regulations guidance.

This material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18m high, the department said.

It would not comment on the type used at Grenfell. This would be subject to investigations into the fire's cause, it said.

Chancellor Philip Hammond told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday there were two questions to be asked regarding cladding.

"One, are our regulations correct, do they permit the right kind of materials and ban the wrong kind of materials?" he said.

"The second question is were they correctly complied with? That will be a subject that the inquiry will look at."

The Fire Protection Association (FPA), the UK's national fire safety organisation, says that when properly fitted - and with its polyethylene insulation expertly encapsulated - cladding should resist fire.

In Dubai, recent high-rise building fires, including at the 79-storey Torch tower in 2015, spread because of cladding, according to fire engineering consultancy Tenable Dubai.

Ray Bailey, managing director at Harley Facades Limited, which installed the cladding, has said: "At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower."

Rydon said its work met "all required building regulations, as well as fire regulation and health & safety standards".

A newsletter from Rydon sent to residents after the refurbishment said that smoke detection systems had been "upgraded and extended".

Local authorities are required to ensure appropriate fire safety procedures are in place in council-run blocks.

Inside Housing - a magazine for the UK social housing sector - has reported that information released by Kensington and Chelsea Council under the Freedom of Information Act shows the most recent fire risk assessment on the tower was in December 2015.

The leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, Nick Paget-Brown, said high-rise buildings were regularly inspected.

5. Was the advice to stay put correct?

Residents of tower blocks such as Grenfell Tower, whose flats are not affected by fire or smoke, are usually advised to stay in place.

Safety standards are meant to contain fires to the individual flat affected and keep stairwells and hallways free of smoke for some time, says Graham Fieldhouse, allowing the fire to be fought and evacuations carefully managed.

"[Firefighters] don't need hundreds of people coming down the stairs when they are trying to fight the fire," the fire safety expert told the BBC.

Geoff Wilkinson, a fire and building inspector, told the BBC that one of his "major concerns" was that smoke seemed to have spread into escape routes.

A number of witnesses have told the BBC that hours after the fire first broke out, residents were still being told to stay in their flats and await the fire service.

6. How will other buildings be affected?

A spokesman for the umbrella organisation for London's boroughs, London Councils, has said all boroughs will be reviewing their fire safety procedures.

Checks would also be carried out on tower blocks going through similar refurbishment to Grenfell Tower, Policing and Fire Minister Nick Hurd said on Wednesday.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid has said the government has started an emergency fire review of similar buildings throughout the country.

Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association, said councils with tower blocks in their local area have been working with their local fire service, and undertaking urgent reviews of their high-rise buildings.

"Fire risk assessments and the construction of buildings are being reviewed and double checks are being made to ensure remedial work recommended under previous assessments have been carried out. Councils are also working closely with tenants to review and offer fire safety advice."

Stephanie Cryan, deputy leader of Southwark Council, which was fined £270,000 earlier this year following the fatal fire at Lakanal House, said: "Following the tragedy at Lakanal in 2009, we have made huge efforts to increase safety across all our blocks."

Will Plastics be Inappropriately Blamed? (from the BBC)

It’s important to note the cladding on Grenfell Tower was used on other buildings hit by fires around the world, the BBC has learned.

The exterior cladding, added in 2015, had a polyethylene - or plastic - core instead of an even more fireproof alternative, BBC Newsnight understands.

High-rise buildings in France, the UAE and Australia that had similar cladding have all been hit by fires that spread.

The government says if this cladding was used, it would not comply with current building regulations.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said such material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18m high.

Rydon, which completed the renovations, said the work met all fire regulations.

The company also insisted that building control and safety standards had been fully met.

And Harley Facades, the company that fitted the panels to the building, said in a statement: "At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower."