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Bolton fire: Anger over ‘cladding lottery’ after blaze at student flats

Bolton fire

A major fire that swept through a block of student flats in Bolton on Friday has raised fresh concerns over the ‘cladding lottery’ still facing housing-block residents across the country

Two people were injured in the blaze when it tore through The Cube, a six-storey student accommodation building  on Friday night (15 November), with videos showing it spreading quickly across the façade.

According to planning records, the building was converted from offices to student rooms in 2015 by Chester-based practice RADM Architects. The practice refused to comment when contacted by the AJ.

The fire brigade has stressed that the type of cladding used on the block was not the same as the aluminium composite cladding (ACM) used on Grenfell Tower.

The mayor of Salford, Paul Dennett, told ITV that the cladding used on the block was high-pressure laminate (HPL). RADM’s planning drawings specify a brand of HPL called Trespa Mateon, though this could have been substituted at a later date.

Dennett said: ‘Needless to say, at the moment we have a bit of a cladding lottery. Government has made resources available for ACM. This is high-pressure laminate.

‘So we will be asking government for more funds and more money to really deal with what is an industrial crisis the UK are facing at the moment in terms of cladding on buildings.’

While attention has focused on ACM, experts have also issued warnings over the fire risks of HPL, which is made by layering sheets of wood or paper fibre with resin.

In July the government issued a fire risk notice advising that, when combined with combustible insulation, most HPL panels were unlikely to resist the spread of a blaze.

After the Bolton fire, Grenfell United called for the declaration of a national emergency over the lack of action.

The group tweeted: ‘It brings back memories of Grenfell and we can’t believe that over two and a half years later this is happening. Our hearts go out to all the students affected.

‘Hundreds of people go to bed scared every night in buildings covered with dangerous materials. When will this be treated as a national emergency? This cannot go on.’

The fire took place in the lower of two buildings that make up The Cube. The fire brigade confirmed that the building that caught fire is recorded as being under 18m and, therefore, ‘not classified as a high rise building’.

This means it would not be covered by the government’s ban on combustibles which only applied to buildings above 18m.

An investigation will be carried out to establish not just the cause of the fire but also the effect that the cladding had its spread, the fire service said.

In a statement, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) said that after Grenfell, it requested the fire risk assessment for The Cube was reviewed and the materials used in the external wall system identified and assessed.

This assessment was shared with GMFRS and in 2018, ‘subsequent work was undertaken to both buildings by the building owners’.

The Cube is managed by Urban Student Life (USL) for landlord Idealsite. In a statement, USL said it was ‘not responsible for the construction of or subsequent amendments to the construction of the Cube buildings’.

A Ministry of Housing spokesperson said that public safety was its ’‘our utmost priority’ and further test results would be published later this summer.

‘We’re very clear: no buildings in this country should have the combination of HPL cladding and combustible insulation.

‘Building owners are legally responsible for ensuring the safety of their buildings and they must ensure this is the case.’

In response to the Bolton fire, Jane Duncan, chair of the RIBA’s expert fire safety group said the blaze had demonstrated once again, that the lessons from the Grenfell Tower tragedy have not been learnt.

She added: ’It is vital that the next government steps up and takes this housing safety emergency seriously – with a comprehensive overhaul of the UK’s building safety regulations.’

The RIBA will continue to lobby for strong baseline fire safety regulations on the use of combustible materials, means of warning and escape, and sprinkler systems. Urgent action is needed – people’s lives are at risk.”


Readers' comments (5)

  • The history of the specification and approval of cladding material is surely now even more in the spotlight - and regardless of the particular history of this building, there surely needs to be forensic review of the efficacy of building standards control - of both design and construction approval - and also of the control of changes to specification at construction stage.
    In particular, the role of what's politely called 'cost engineering' but which seems to be a strong temptation for the contractor to cash in on (and sometimes abuse) the concept of material and component substitution on an 'equal and approved' basis.
    There seems to have been increased fragmentation of responsibility for site quality control in recent years, and it's not clear that the development of quality management systems and standards has been of real benefit or sometimes just acted as a smokescreen for bad construction.

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  • Actually, it is the confluence of several factors. Yes, building control has responsibility and its privatisation has been a negative factor. However, there is an equally important actor that must be mentioned.

    The approval for combustible materials starts with the integrity of the testing agency and the robustness of the tests that they administer. The design of these tests needs to be called into question, as well as their interpretation. One of the main UK testing agencies for construction products has been BRE. It's privatisation some 20 years ago means it has less resources and is more dependent upon repeat business. One has to ask whether this has compromised their rigour and whether they have become too dependent on the supply side.

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  • The real issue here is D+B, a procurement system which incentivises the derogation of quality; in design, in materiality and in construction methodology. When the contractor is judge and jury of the quality of their own workmanship, and their main goal is maximising their own profits, we will continue to see this flagrant disregard for safety in favour of making a quick buck.

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  • Thank goodness no serious injuries there, but that's due to the skill of the firefighters, the presence of more than one staircase, the relative mobility of students and probably no 'stay-put' policy. Having been involved as an Architect in the removal of other designer's & contractors dangerous and flammable cladding (on 30 tower blocks with another 8 in progress) then replacement with completely fireproof mineral fibre based EWI (external wall insulation) this fire utterly appals me, but it's no real surprise as there are still numerous buildings like this (and worse) that present a huge unacceptable fire risk. Those building owners and managers know who they are and should be dealing with their buildings now. NO excuses not to!
    The fact that there are still readily available and advertised materials that are not completely fireproof, and that Building Regulations have not yet been fully clarified and amended is a matter of national disgrace irrespective of politics and finance or the professions of those that specified and fitted them.
    I don’t know what RADM’s brief was nor their procurement route, but Trespa Meteon or similar systems seem to have been fitted to many tall buildings, new and old. These buildings and systems should be rapidly and properly tested, then remediated if necessary.
    What is particularly infuriating is that many of the buildings constructed or refurbished over the past 5 to 10 years have been carried out on a ‘Design & Build’ basis for developers who have set up single project companies. Those single project companies made huge profits and insisted that the contractors and Architects sign collateral warranties, and then, after a while went into liquidation meaning that in numerous cases their Directors have avoided liability for the buildings, the designs and the costs of remediation.
    The D&B contractors and subcontractors have also in some cases gone into liquidation to avoid the same onerous liabilities because they changed what the Architect had properly specified as completely fire resistant on cost saving grounds, knowing that on a D&B contract the contractor calls the shots and the Architect has no remit to, or is not even permitted to inspect what is being built on site.
    So, in some cases the only people who are being asked or demanded to pay for the repairs are normal citizens who bought an apartment in a development and cannot afford, in any way, to pay the costs of the repairs and may face bankruptcy and/or homelessness. Some are challenging this in the courts, others can’t afford to. A totally iniquitous situation which the government, of whatever political persuasion, should resolve very rapidly!

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  • MacKenzie Architects

    It might be that this construction has behaved under fire exactly as 'required' by the building regulations. I haven't seen any photos or tv images that have suggested otherwise.
    I hope that in pretty short order, we find what the full façade was specified and constructed with, and what overall damage to the rest of the building resulted.
    It is encouraging at least that all residents escaped safely.

    I also hope that any Inquiry does not take 3 years to publish the first chapter ..........

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