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Grenfell refurbishment fuelled fire, draft report claims

Grenfell red sky
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The recladding of Grenfell Tower failed to meet safety standards set out in Approved Document B – the building regulation covering fire safety – and helped spread the fire, according to a report commissioned by Metropolitan Police investigators

A copy of the 210-page draft document, which was leaked to the Evening Standard, outlines a number of deficiencies in the installation of windows, cavity barriers and the cladding system between 2014 and 2016.

These failures on the job fuelled the spread of the fire that resulted in 71 deaths in June last year, the report concluded.

According to the Standard, the report said: ‘Grenfell Tower, as originally built, appears to have been designed on the premise of providing very high levels of passive fire protection.

’The original façade of Grenfell Tower, comprising exposed concrete and, given its age, likely timber or metal frame windows, would not have provided a medium for fire spread up the external surface. In BRE’s opinion … there would have been little opportunity for a fire in a flat of Grenfell Tower to spread to any neighbouring flats.’

According to the newspaper, the report said that the aluminium composite material used for the cladding had a polyethylene (plastic) core that ‘appears to be highly combustible’.

The report also found that cavity barriers designed to expand and seal the gap between the cladding and the building were of ‘insufficient size specification’ to work properly.

Crucially, the dossier reveals there was a 150mm gap between window frames and the concrete columns holding them, which had been filled with a rubberised membrane, rigid foam insulation and uPVC lightweight plastic panels, none of which would have provided 30 minutes fire resistance.

In addition, many flat doors lacked closers, contrary to Building Regulations, meaning that large quantities of smoke entered the stairwell and lifts.

The Evening Standard reports an unnamed ‘specialist architect’ shown the draft report as saying: ‘The question is: could this fire have been avoided? This damning report is saying it absolutely could have been and that the refurb was to blame … 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.’

The report was carried out by the Buildings Research Establishment (BRE) on behalf of the police investigation into the fire.

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Readers' comments (10)

  • Gordon  Gibb

    Four honours and postgraduate diploma students at the Mackintosh School of Architecture have carried out a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower as a research project over the last five months, and it would appear that their report is more extensive and their findings much wider cast than those of the BRE in the report leaked to the Evening Standard. Under my supervision these student have worked with a passion to investigate the components of the potential cause of the fire, including the cladding installation, but also reviewing the layout of the changes and detail design and the immediate context within which the briefing, design and construction decisions were made. Despite being hampered to a certain extent by refusals to release documents under FOI applications, they have managed to confirm and substantiate a catalogue of errors and omissions which have led to the rate of growth and spread of the fire and the failure to achieve timely evacuation of the building.

    I would suggest that this piece of research does not make comfortable reading for the Management Group and the contractor / designer. It comments upon the lack of resource applied to the most necessary components of a brief for revision of an inhabited premises, the almost incomprehensible failings by individuals, and upon the lack of resource applied to design review and inspection by parties who understand the design.

    However, it also opens up serious questions for Government in respect of its preferred method of procurement and the huge conflict of interest that exists within it, and the inadequacy of its approach to regulation, stymied, in the face of clear evidence of a need to improve, by a clear expression of political intent.

    I would suggest that this study forms an excellent basis for a comprehensive review of how public buildings are procured and how self-risk averse arms-length organisations can be prevented from operating negligently for the sake of financial expediency. It also reaches conclusions on how design and construction should be properly regulated and how the process should be reviewed throughout, by those who have sufficient training and understanding to be competent and who are not conflicted in that endeavour.

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  • Was there not once a profession which designed safe, robust buildings which fully complied with the Building Regulations?
    What was it's name again...ar...arc...archa...no, it's gone.

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  • Yasmin Shariff

    It pains me deeply to see the blatant misogyny, xenophobia and anti-architect culture which has imploded at Grenfell. The report is no surprise, obvious and fails to see the fundamental flaw. Without a trained profession accountable and skilled to lead the process it is no surprise that the expensive and fatal refurb of Grenfell occurred. Whilst public procumbent continues in this gung ho manner- rather like doing heart surgery without a surgeon- there continues to be a danger of more incidents like Grenfell flaring up at great personal and public cost- but who cares they are only scroungers or immigrants and all the diversity polies have been ticked off by the procurement companies so everyone complies. If only Grenfell could restore respect and dignity of all people regardless of colour, creed or sex and those in financial need helped rather than bulldozed or set alight.
    The legacy of PFI, Design and Build and Framework Agreements are far too expensive to countenance. In the absence of trained professionals the country is being vandalised by estates of noddyland with poor services and social amenities. The legacy of social housing continues to be trashed through poor refurbs and lack of maintenance and care. How long will we ignore trained professionals (architects) and rely on greedy and opportunistic developers, contractors and well meaning diy ‘experts’?
    It is time for architects departments to arise out of the ashes in local authorities skilled and able to refurbish estates, provide social housing and public buildings that we can be proud of. Britain used to lead the world in innovation and design in the public sector. Post war Hertfordshire Architects Department, LCC, Camden Council were published, filmed and looked upon as exemplars. We still have some of the best architectural brains in the world- it is time we used them.

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  • Gordon  Gibb

    Whilst I respect the views and agree in general terms with the previous correspondents, I have to say that although I believe that architects are best placed to provide the services that were needed at all stages where the errors were made at Grenfell, it is not the case that "The name is the thing... " There are architects in posts in many of the organisations referred to above, and there were architects engaged in the Grenfell Tower project.

    I would suggest that we need architects to be empowered and competent, and we need the Government to take stock of the recent catalogue of failures and assist in the delivery of a process of delivery which does not reward negligence. There really needs to be much greater independence in the decision-making than that which exists in modern procurement. Architects, if supported by inclusive and appropriate authorities and institutions, are well-placed to provide that independent and holistic overview throughout, because of their training and orientation, which is not aimed towards "delivery of anything that appears to work, quickly and cheaply".

    It may be time for us to review the work of Sir Michael Latham and Sir John Egan, in the light of what has actually been implemented since the delivery of their reports. It is my belief that there has been a mischief created in the change of reality in the last twenty-four years, from delay and failure through entrenchment to embedded incompetence based upon dispute avoidance and joint goals.

    I think that whilst the findings of both gentlemen may have been good for the speed, wealth and apparent efficiency of an industry and for the delivery of some sort of product, they have not considered the negative effects upon quality that are now emerging and upon the failure to address the wider needs of those who have to use the resultant buildings.

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  • Gordon Gibb - is the report you mention available to read ?

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  • Gordon  Gibb

    Alexandra - Thank you for your interest. Once all of the relevant permissions have been obtained, it is the intention of the authors to release it.

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  • Frances Maria

    In my view much of what is stated in this report is what has been blatantly obvious from the beginning; of course the building would not have burned if it had not been clad with flammable material. Bare concrete does not burn, so of course it is highly likely that no lives would have been lost. It has also been known from the outset that both the insulation and the cores of the aluminium composite panels were flammable, so this is hardly a revelation either. It comes down to the fact that it was incredibly stupid to clad a building in these materials, and neither energy efficiency nor aesthetic appearance should take precedence over safety. It was a risk that never should have been taken, and it is dangerous to assume that a fire will probably never happen. The combustible nature of these materials would have been known when they were fitted. I have always been aware of the risk, so those who made the decision must have been aware of the risk too.

    The other issues too, such as defects with the installation of the windows and fire barriers are things I picked up on some months ago. With a the public inquiry ongoing, as well as a criminal investigation being undertaken by the police, it would be inappropriate to comment further on these and some of the other issues raised, but from my own experience I shall say that poor installation, design and decisions all played a part in this tragedy.

    Finally, I find it quite disgraceful that someone should choose to leak this information to the press. What was this person hoping to achieve? Their actions undermine the important work being carried out by myself and others to establish what really did happen, and the revelations also have the potential to prejudice any future criminal trial.

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  • Gordon  Gibb

    Frances - To answer your question, it is a public interest situation in that the police investigation is actively preventing investigation by others for whom the criminal liability of individuals is not an issue of interest. The police investigation is preventing information being released under FOIs interfering with investigation by those more interested in saving lives in current projects on site right now than in putting people in prison. Therefore I can see why someone would see that information being put into the public domain, before the police reach their conclusions own their own restricted matters, as being both valuable and morally justifiable.

    Another important consideration is that the police investigation can only operate on the basis of compliance or otherwise with the law. Therefore its remit is very restricted. Who is investigating whether or not the law is wrong, whether the regulations underpinned by the law are wrong and which by simple inspection can be seen to be inadequate, or whether the method of procurement implemented by the government and its agencies is wrong? Those failures are obvious, not assessed by the police investigation, and those, paraphrasing you, are as "incredibly stupid" as cladding a building with flammable materials that appears to meet the regulations of the country in which it was built.

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  • Clearly management failures, failed construction and procurement methods and materials used in the refurb cladding all contributed to the very rapid spread of the fire in the Grenfell Tower fire and the loss of 71 lives.. But those failings did not start the fire in the individual flat. Nor created the intensity of the fire which should have been contained within that flat for sufficient time for it to be dealt with before spreading externally so rapidly to the rest of the block. The reasons and action that need to be taken to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy should emerge ASAP as a result of the current Inquiries.
    But the fundamental reason why 71 people died in that fire was that they did not know a life threatening fire had broken out and had not been contained to make it safe for them to remain in their lats. Clearly there was no fire warning system in place. A family in a 21st floor flat stated they first knew of the fire when smoke started to come in under the front door - from what should have been a smoke protected escape corridor. A recommendation that can and should be made now, as a lengthy public inquiry is not needed to come to what is surely an obvious conclusion is that all multi occupancy residential blocks above three storys must be fitted with an fire alarm warning audible in all flats. If in multi story blocks the fire containment policy is still operated then there must be a secondary and obviously different audible warning as the signal for all occupants to evacuate the building as rapidly as possible as the fire has not been, or is in danger of not being contained. In addition managing agents of multi story blocks should be required by law to explain to all new tenant the fire alarm and escape procedures in place and that explanation should be permanently displayed on the inner face of the entrance door to all flat. Those requirements will not prevent fires occurring in multi level residential blocks but ensure that the tragic loss of life that occurred at the Grenfell Tower should not happen again. Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA Member of the Academy of Experts

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  • P Latham

    A blinding lack of technical skill apparent in the use if flamable cladding, token fire barriers riddled with air gaps to create a fearsome blowlamp updraught triggered on that dreadful warm night by a simple kitchen fire are matters any Architect should know about and avoid from their training. We are not training architects in practical construction but training a generation with a childish obsession with image and style above all things. The RIBA and the Approved Schools have their hands all over this. Clearly the buildings management, Building Regulations and Regulatory inspection by the local authority all have a part to play but it is the public’s right to a duty of care from a profession which assumes the role if expert which has been badly broken by this terrible tragedy. Calls for sprinklers and second staircases cannot hide that simple fact.

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