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Fire expert: Grenfell Tower tragedy 'entirely predictable'


Ministers failed to act on the clear lessons of the 2009 Lakanal House fire according to high-rise fire safety expert Sam Webb

The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower could and should have been prevented thanks to the lessons of a similar disaster in the capital eight years’ ago, a leading fire expert has told the AJ.

Sam Webb, a retired architect who investigated the fatal 2009 Lakanal House fire in Southwark and acted as an expert witness to the families affected at the inquest, said that Lakanal House also featured cladding which caught fire (pictured below).

That fire claimed six lives including three children and was previously the UK’s worst fire in a postwar block of flats.

Webb, who sits on the Parliamentary All Party Fire & Rescue Group and also investigated the infamous 1968 Ronan Point tower collapse, said that cladding panels underneath windows at Lakanal House had caught fire within four-and-a-half minutes.

Of Grenfell Tower, he said: ‘This tragedy was entirely predictable, sadly.

‘What we saw at Lakanal House should have been enough to make people think about what was going on with the outside of our buildings in terms of cladding.’

Webb also questioned why the government had not updated Part B of the Building Regulations covering fire risk in tall buildings and why sprinkler systems had been made mandatory in new build towers but not in refurbished ones.

Lakanal House fire

Lakanal House fire

Lakanal House fire

‘We [the All Party Group] have been trying to get ministers to make sure we have sprinkler systems on refurbished as well as new towers but this has fallen on deaf ears,’ he said. ‘We provide people with water in their homes, why can’t we provide sprinkler systems – it’s not rocket science.

‘Ron Dobson, the then chief fire officer of the London Fire Brigade, concluded at the end of the Lakanal House inquest that these would have saved those who died.

Last autumn, then housing minister Gavin Barwell - who lost his seat at the general election and was this week appointed as Theresa May’s new chief of staff - announced a review into Part B of the Building Regulations 2010.

However, the review has not yet begun and in March, a spokesperson for the DCLG said the review would be undertaken ‘in due course’.

In 2009, a BBC London investigation found that hundreds of tower blocks across London had not been properly assessed for fire safety.

Using FOI, the investigation found that councils had failed to fire check at least 253 social housing high-rises – something that constitutes a criminal offence.

Requests sent to 32 boroughs showed at least eight councils had failed to make proper checks.


Hannah Mansell, chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum, trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust and spokesperson for the BWF’s Fire Door Safety Week campaign

We have a right to be very angry at the news about Grenfell Tower. I regularly sit in meetings with fire safety professionals, and their fury and frustration at the inaction of local councils and social landlords is palpable.

We have been warning about the risks of a fire like this for years. ‘What we need to get people to take notice is a huge fire in a tower block’ they say. Well, here it is.

’There’s an endemic fire safety problem in this type of housing stock’

There is an endemic fire safety problem in this type of housing stock. I have walked around tower blocks documenting and filming the fire safety breaches. I’ve seen flats without fire doors, no emergency lighting or signage on fire doors and escape routes, broken fire rated glass, wedged-open fire doors, poor fire stopping around service hatches that breach compartmentation, no smoke seals in fire doors, rubbish and combustible material left in the common areas, and no information displayed on the specific fire plan of the building.

But that information appears to fall on deaf ears. Action must be taken now to address these issues.



Readers' comments (13)

  • Whilst it is laudable to launch a fund for Grenfell Tower fire victims,surely the role of the AJ is to mount a massive campaign to overhaul practice in the area of fire in blocks of flats.
    The Building Regulations are woefully inadequate, and ministers have prevaricated about overhauling them.
    Some of the comments by architects given prominence in the AJ show just how out of touch and peripheral some of the profession are.

    So AJ, get on with a decent campaign for once.

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  • Chris Rogers

    Notwithstanding the need to focus on the obvious human tragedy here, the BBC's reporting yesterday was woefully underpowered when it came to details of e.g. the refurb, the way the tower was originally built, etc. I found more in 10 minutes online at 8am yesterday - including an interview with the original project architect and basic info about the overcladding - than appeared on BBC TV or online coverage. By mid-day the BBC was describing rainscreen (over)cladding as "rain proof", presumably due to unfamiliarity. Fortunately this was rectified (much) later, including a useful piece on how rainscreen cladding of this type is actually made. But clearly there are questions to answer, not just on the cladding but the apparent issue of individual boilers and how they were fitted.

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  • As a Facade consultant working with these materials for many years
    I fully understand the requirements of both the Building regulations in respect of suitable material selection and fire protection.

    The key is the fire protection, of which should have encapsulated the apartments individually. Using vertical and horizontal fire breaks installed, in the correct manner should have mitigated the fire, giving residents time to escape and fire fighter time to control the situation

    The choice of ACM is critical, as many have little or no fire protection other than surface spread of flame, of which at 1000 deg c the aluminium melts and exposes a polyethylene core of which propagates fire.
    ACM with fire rating are available but not cheap. Now the insulant used comes into question, likely it wasn't a mineral wool of which would have added nothing to the fire, more likely was used is the specified Celotex FR5000 product or a substitute of which needs to be investigated.

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  • What a horrible event. Grenfell Tower residents must be supported in any way necessary.
    After reading Hannah Mansell comment I am wondering who knew, what, when, and what was done. I would like to hear from manufacturers, construction companies, engineers, fire experts, politicians, civil servants and architects WHY a combustible material like EPS can be used for thermal insulation, especially external, thus fuelling facade fires. It is bizarre to use a material which burns easily and then to apply measures to make it less combustible. To add toxic HBCD to an already questionable material. Trying to prevent flames to reach it by encasing and/or shielding it with fire barriers made from non-combustible materials is bizarre. Building fires with EPS external insulation have been seen around the world for many years. Germany, France, Australia, US, Dubai. All can readily be viewed on the www. In some countries building regulations have been amended to reduce the fire risk, but WHY not just ban EPS? Simple!
    Cost & profit.
    Building cost analyses of new build & retrofit projects in Germany have shown that using a non-combustable mineral insulation material is 10-20% more expensive. The price of more safety & less risk.
    Profit for developers & EPS manufacturers I do not know, but my guess is ...
    Stop EPS. Change building regulations and keep it simple. Do not introduce better encasing, more complicated fire barriers, etc..
    Fires will happen again, but the risk of spreading so incredibly fast can be reduced.
    Lifes can be saved.

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  • Expanded polystyrene is inherently unsuitable for external insulation in the way it was applied to Grenfell tower.
    It is not a closed cell insulant, therefore it will absorb moisture vapour. Hence the need to ventilate between the rain-screen cladding & the EPS.
    It is flammable, but unlike other organic insulants, at temperatures over 200 degrees C it gives off a gas which can spontaneously combust.
    I believe that this accounts for the rapidity of the spread of this fire. The fragmentation of responsibilities through a cascade of subcontractors doubtless contributed to a lack of overall control and responsibility as was identified in the Summerland fire on the Isle of White many decades ago.

    How many other potential death-traps are over-clad in this way?

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  • MacKenzie Architects

    Following on from John Chately's comment-
    I don't know the construction of the facade refurbishment in this instance, but from the Fire Officers' surprise at the speed the fire moved up the outside of the building, I would first be looking at the chimney-effect of the air-gap behind the rainscreen.
    As JC says, the fire-breaks in the void have to be in place -they should stop the fire spreading, but the rainscreen outer skin and support framing will fail under heat at some point quite early least.

    I would almost want the outer skin to fail early early and remove the chimney (you need the void to allow the air pressures to equalise and not drive rain into your construction)
    We would use mineral fibre for the external insulation giving you a chance to keep it in place, rather than the foamed boards.

    In the concrete frame of the building you would expect there to be effective floor to floor separation, but this fire seems to have managed to get into each apartment very easily -and get more fuel. The slab-edge detail is likely to be very important.
    There also will be questions about the lobbies, the service risers, and the escape stair.

    I fear the loss of life will be much higher than what we were initially told, and for such an inferno, we should be very grateful. That will be no comfort to either the families, the specifiers, or the building authorities.

    The knee-jerk reaction is to say no building should be built taller than the fire equipment capable of protecting it's occupants; who is to say that does not make perfect sense.

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  • @John Chatley.
    There are non-combustible insulants, so why clad a 24 storey block with combustible ones - other than to save money. Fire breaks do not always work well, and the fire spreads so quickly no-one can guarantee that everyone will escape.
    An un-professional viewpoint when other's lives are at risk.

    Look at this video of a test in Germany in 2011
    After 3 minutes the insulant was fully ablaze and dripping burning plastic.
    They are now installing EXTERNAL sprinklers on overclad building.

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  • Separate from the cladding-related issues, and referring to Chris Rogers' comments about the BBC, on Friday I heard two separate and very disquieting claims from local interviewees on Radio 4 - that the fire service couldn't use the dry riser, and that it had been difficult to isolate the gas supply to the building.
    Clearly, in the latter case, there's still the problem of a 'reservoir' of gas in the pipes even after the supply is cut off, but no doubt both claims will be thoroughly investigated - and the sooner the better.

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  • In 1984 I was visiting public housing estates from Australia and witnessed the last fire test on Ronan Point organised by Sam Webb. I was surprised the building still stood after the 1968 disaster. The housing authorities had insisted that new firestop caulking would ensure that fire could not spread from one apartment to the next. Despite their best efforts it failed again, and at last they gave up and the building was demolished in 1986. However it seems institutional reluctance to act survived.

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  • there is ample case law from 2003 on epd insulation in composite panels e.g.
    Reynobond produce an appropriatly INCOMBUSTIBLE product for facade cladding
    We don't know if Studio E architects had a hand in materials specification in contract documents, other than to 'suggest' rather than specify.
    We don't know if Kensington & Chelsea buildign control issued a completion certificate.

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  • To add to the comment from 'Firmness Commodity Delight' on the use of ALCOA's Reynobond, a trawl of the website for another of this type of thin sandwich aluminium faced 'superflat' cladding - Alucobond (originally created by Alusuisse) - suggests that most of the British applications in residential towers have used the 'hardly flammable' Alucobond Plus, whereas most of the European applications have used the 'incombustible' Alucobond A2.
    If residential towers in this country incorporating similar cladding - such as the Alpolic range from Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation - have also tended to feature the poorer fire performance version of the product then there's all the more need for urgent rectification work

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  • This statement was posted on Wikipedia:

    Sam Webb, the architect who investigated the Lakanal fire and who sits on the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group, said "This tragedy was entirely predictable, sadly."[84] Webb also said, "I really don't think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government's mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren't good enough."

    A couple of general comments on "how it works":

    I agree that not all contractors are the world's best authorities on fire safety. But neither they nor consulting architects or engineers have time in the low tender system to immerse themselves in study of the matter and to gain noteworthy expertise - and then have the means to defeat the low tender system. I am not sure if the UK is still this way, but here is an indicative fact, that I know has existed in the UK for many years: optional certification. By certification I mean mandatory follow up service as the basis of ensuring that what was fire tested, and otherwise tested, is identical to that which is being sold and installed. This is the basis of UL certification, as well as Intertek and DIBt. If you have no third party assurance that what goes into a building is identical to that which was successfully tested and earned a certification listing or, in the case of DIBt, a governmental approval, it's hard to imagine that anyone cares about anything in a jurisdiction that finds this acceptable, as the basis for acceptance of a building product is reliance upon the ethics of a vendor and any civil recourse against a private sector concern with limited capital to garner in the event of a successful claim or prosecution. From my limited understanding of how things work in the UK, certification is certainly practiced and available from reputable vendors, some of whom also attend our meetings in North America, but certification has not always been mandatory in the UK. So one may have a test report, but the laboratory has no idea what may be the exact composition of a building products before or after testing.

    The next item, concerning this architect's statement, is about members of the construction industry's lack of awareness of fire safety issues. This gets down to your building code and the mechanics behind code change proposals and their acceptance, as well as the backbone behind this, which is the standards writing process.

    In my experience, take ANY test standard for any construction products and take a look around the room where a task group is working to update a standard or maintain a status quo, and you will see primarily manufacturer's representatives, sometimes their code and standards people, and sometimes their R&D people, like me, who are hired and dispatched to the meetings by the building product manufacturers to represent what is deemed to be in the best interests of each manufacturer, whereby bottom line concerns may trump some concerns for public safety. And I'm not knocking that. Standards writing organisations are required to maintain a "balance" of representatives from different factions, such a laboratories, building and fire safety authorities, end-users, etc. Now that's the theory. In practice, manufacturers tend to be all over these meetings and dictate the outcome amongst themselves (strength in numbers) - and you can tell by the results where corporate needs are simply represented better than those of, say the fire prevention officers who enforce the local fire code in all buildings. These folks tend to have really relevant input but we can rarely get them to show up because the municipalities won't pay for them to attend. That's a clear case of false economies.

    Those same manufacturers are typically also rather adept at code hearings. If you're bored already reading this, this primacy of corporate bottom line concerns, which can, at times, run counter to public safety, can be clearly seen. It's too deep to be an election issue.

    I don't know the UK building codes and how they are maintained. But suppose for a moment that the big culprit in the fire were combustible cladding - and suppose for a moment that the use of this cladding met the requirements of your building code in the UK. It's not a bad supposition from where I sit, as I trust that one would probably not want to mess with the City of London in this regard, then ask yourself what kind of a moron would permit the use of combustible cladding without an automatic sprinkler system being in place? Either this was legal or somebody loused up and somebody else did not catch the error. If I were a betting man, I'd say that it was most likely legal. Legal or not, it's not exactly in the interest of public safety.

    Do you think perhaps your cities should be encouraged to dispatch more of its fire prevention officers to attend meetings where codes and standards are created and being decided upon?

    The spread of such fires, leapfrogging up a building and perhaps through improperly firestopped through-penetrations and building joints - is not exactly new. This is all preventable and mitigateable through common methods that are available worldwide, including the UK.

    From my somewhat omniscient point of view, but having worked in passive fire protection since 1981, I can only recommend that more of a voice is given, and more funding made available to British fire prevention officers, such that their way is paid to attend and contribute to the standards writing and code writing process. Some of the best contributions to that realm have come from that particular trade - but the municipalities have to send them to the meetings so that their voices will be heard.

    I suspect that one would have a hard time to find a single fire prevention officer who would think that putting combustible cladding on the side of an unsprinklered building was a good idea.

    Best regards,

    Achim Hering

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  • No one appears to have mentioned the Summerland fire back in 1973 where the fire spread within the cavity behind the cladding where the insulation and cladding were not fire resistant. I thought the Building regulations were changed to ensure this would not occur again. Also where is the logic in providing only one means of escape from a high rise building. Regulations apart it should be a no brainer to always provide an alternative means of escape.

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