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Grenfell Tower: residents had predicted massive fire

Glenfell tower fire crop
  • 10 Comments

The residents of Grenfell Tower in west London had warned of the potentially devastating effects of a fire before last night’s blaze which caused at least 17 deaths and scores of injuries 

The 24-storey building in north Kensington, which had only recently undergone an £8.6 million refurbishment overseen by Studio E Architects, was reported to be on fire just before 1am this morning.

Around 200 firefighters and 45 fire engines attended the ‘major incident’ at the 120-flat concrete block - originally built in 1974 but given new windows and aluminium composite cladding with thermal insulation less than two years ago.  

However residents under the banner Grenfell Action Group had raised numerous concerns about fire safety. A blog posted earlier today by the group reads: ’Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in [the borough].’

’All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.’

Eye witnesses who escaped from the block said they had not heard any fire alarms within the apartments and that those in the corridors were barely audible. It is understood around 500 people were in the building when the blazes started on the fourth floor.

One resident told the BBC that ’had he and his family stayed in the flat, which is what they had been told to do in the event of a fire, we would have perished’.

Another eyewitness, George Clarke, the architect and presenter of Channel 4 TV programme Amazing Spaces, told BBC Radio 5 Live: ’I’m getting covered in ash, that’s how bad it is. I’m 100 metres away and I’m absolutely covered in ash.

’It’s so heartbreaking, I’ve seen someone flashing their torches at the top level and they obviously can’t get out.’

In 2009 poor design was blamed for contributed to deaths of six people, including three children, in the 12-storey Lakanal House, Camberwell which residents had repeatedly called to be made safe or demolished.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has said it will ’the cause of the fire will be fully investigated’.

Conservative MP Mike Penning, a former firefighter and fire minister, told BBC News the UK that he believed the cladding used on the exterior of the building was responsible for spreading the fire.

He said: ’The cladding was clearly spreading the fire …We need to find out what went on’.

The firm which provided the cladding for Grenfell was Harley Facades. 

A spokesperson from Studio E Architects said: ‘We are terribly shocked by the whole event. We have nothing else to add at this point.

‘It’s still on-going and it would be inappropriate to make a comment or speculate.’

The spokesperson said that the practice will be releasing a longer statement in due course.

She added that the firm’s website had crashed as a result of heavy traffic – and that the practice was working to get it back online – rather than as a result of the firm intentionally taking it down.

30 September 2014 - approved cladding material palette, Studio E Architects

30 September 2014 - approved cladding material palette, Studio E Architects

30 September 2014 - approved cladding material palette for lower levels, Studio E Architects

Comments

Geoff Wilkinson, the AJ’s building regulations columnist

It’s very early and we should avoid speculating, but we in light of Lakanal House we have to ask questions about the refurbishment.

I hear reports of a recent fire at Trellick Tower which was contained correctly by compartmentation. Yet this fire clearly overcame that compartmentation very quickly and questions have to be asked why.

Another report spoke of recent works to the gas riser - if this was leaking then that would certainly help to explain the speed and ferocity.

No doubt sprinklers will be mentioned again but if the cladding or the gas rider were at fault then they would have little effect.

I have seen extracts of a fire risk assessment and talk of combustible material stored in the common walkways which suggests poor overall management.

Owen Luder, former RIBA president

Firstly this is a disaster - as is the case with most disasters - that should not have happened. I’ve designed multi-storey residential blocks - both private and council - and I live in a converted residential block with 168 flats when in London. This has designed-in fire precaution and means of escape measures as well as self-closing four-hour fire resistant doors.

The fire alarm system, that should be throughout at Grenfell Tower, should have given immediate warning of a fire in any individual flat. If that worked there would have been ample time for everyone to safely evacuate the building.

That clearly did not seem to happen. Having been in a fire disaster, although on a ship, I know the first sign of smoke or a fire you get out into the open air as quickly as you can.

From what can be seen from the TV the fire started low down - some said the second floor, others the fourth floor - but it appears from a corner flat and the fire then spread rapidly as you would expect upwards and spread horizontally across all upper floors.The reports indicate it spread at great speed until the whole block [was engulfed] apart from a small number on the lower floors which appear to be still largely intact.

’How did the fire spread so rapidly upwards without adequately warning the resident in their beds’

The key investigation will be how the fire which started in one flat (as that appears to be the case) spread so rapidly upwards without adequately warning the resident in their beds and enabling them to escape in safety.

It appears that the 1970s block was very recently renovated. That appears to have included new windows and cladding. There is always the risk, and there have been cases in the past, that the design of the replacement windows and the cladding did not provide the necessary fire checks to prevent fire spreading externally from one flat to the one above. However the nature of this fire from what I have seen on TV that does not appear to be the case. Although I wouldn’t rule it out.

As for the stability of the block this is unlikely to be affected by this fire - intense and hot as it was - as the structure is almost a reinforced concrete frame with a central concrete lift shaft which should have remained. In the case of New York’s Twin Towers the main structure was steel and the heat generated by the explosion of aviation fuel created heat at such a level that the steel structure on the floors where the planes hit, bent and the top floors above collapsed which then caused the blocks to completely collapse.

Chris Roche of 11.04 Architects

Clearly today’s disaster will make everyone involved in the design and procurement of high-rise buildings think more critically about the safety of occupants. And while it is too early to determine the cause, questions need to be asked about what preventative measures were in place in this block. Did each flat have a fire extinguisher to provide a first line of defence in the event of a small electrical fire? The cost for the entire block of flats would be less than £4,000 (150 flats x £25 = £3,750).

As smoke inhalation is one of the greatest threats to persons escaping residential fires were occupants provided with smoke escape masks – a family of four could be provided with the mask below for less than £100 per flat - £15,000 for the entire block.

It is incumbent on everyone involved in the design and procurement of residential apartment buildings to further examine ways of reducing the risk to occupants.

Social media reaction

 

A night I'll never ever forget. Truly horrific.

A post shared by George Clarke (@mrgeorgeclarke) on

 

Donate to the AJ’s fundraiser for victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy

 

  • 10 Comments

Readers' comments (10)

  • This is a tragedy, and as GW suggests, one should not speculate.

    First question must be why this happened during the building works. The residents' blog complains of restricted access during the works.
    Secondly, one notes that the lower four floors were being converted to flats, another risk element.
    Thirdly, Blog also notes cladding materials being stored in common areas.
    Fourth, what is composition of cladding. Harley Fabs do Alucobond and PVF. Apparently the scheme was passed by K&C Building Inspector, but after Lakanal is that sufficient? There are holes in the Regs re re-cladding combustibility and spread of flame.

    FINALLY, … AJ should invite Sam Webb to contribute the authoritative commentary of this affair, and fire safety in blocks of flats generally.
    A little less opinion in the AJ and more reasoned and knowledgeable reporting would be good for the AJ.

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  • The need to learn from this terrible fire should include a thorough investigation of what impact the Lakanal House tragedy has had on subsequent events.
    Investigation must be independent and comprehensive, which sounds obvious, but needs full legislative authority.

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  • It recalled me an incident years ago in Shanghai that a building had similar fire after renovation. It happened likely because of the insulation material that could catch fire. I think a deep investigation on the type of the insulation material might give an answer to the cause of the fire.

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  • Gas riser? Surely not, in a block built after the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968. Wasn't gas banned from towers after that? Are architects and politicians forgetting that ancient history?

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  • This article has no facts. Please consult a fire engineer for information as to what can be done rather than have someone suggest gas masks and 4 hour fire doors with simultaneous evacuation. I would expect this from the daily mail not the architects journal.

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  • Pictures of architects winning champagne on a day like today is inappropriate, AJ get your priorities right.

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  • J Hawkins

    With regard to the comment at 10.13, Sam Webb has been quoted in the Guardian:
    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/14/disaster-waiting-to-happen-fire-expert-slams-uk-tower-blocks

    “A disaster waiting to happen,” is how the architect and fire expert Sam Webb describes hundreds of tower blocks across the UK, after the fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington that has left at least six people dead. “We are still wrapping postwar high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.”

    Webb surveyed hundreds of residential tower blocks across the country in the early 1990s and presented a damning report to the Home Office, which revealed that more than half of the buildings didn’t meet basic fire safety standards. He said: “We discovered a widespread breach of safety, but we were simply told nothing could be done because it would ‘make too many people homeless’.

    “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.”

    Risk assessment and fire engineering factoring down the risk with the BS 9999 approach is one approach to safety. Airliners have built in 'redundancy' type systems of safety, if one system fails there is a back up.
    The BS 9999 approach contains elements of engineering; but not that much redundancy. Large tower blocks could be seen by some as being like air liners. If the logic and approach of the technical design is not built in reality; as per the specification or drawings, or there is too much hanging on one part of the engineering, then if failure occurs, life safety hazard situations may occur.
    Should external Class O PIR insulation , or any other type of insulation be mandatory as Class O where there is possibility of air and fire being drawn through external compartments on tall buildings?
    Personally, I think a bit more redundancy with things like 2 means of escape ( emergency external stairs even, as in the USA ) and a dedicated firemans lift and stair would help people sleep more easily in their beds; I would not think that this was an 'over reaction' that would put developers out of business in the residential sector given property values?
    This is as much a philosophical view than a more mechanistic one based on evacuation calculations, discounting floor occupancy populations, and the like for alternate means of escape.
    I am sure this discussion will continue, brought about by a tragic situation which should be resolved sensibly, going for conflict resolution rather than the opposite.

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  • http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/property/docklands-tower-blaze-exposes-dirty-secret-of-cheap-cladding/news-story/bdfe1856c4955b3da453bbea543cfd2b

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  • Chris Roche

    Lauren Grant above suggests: "Please consult a fire engineer for information as to what can be done rather than have someone suggest gas masks and 4 hour fire doors with simultaneous evacuation".
    This suggests Lauren believes a Fire Engineer was not consulted, and had they been, there would not be an issue. The problem in part is many experts have been consulted in the past, and irrespective of whether their recommendations are implemented or otherwise, disasters continue to occur. Systems fail, and human error can occur. The fact remains an oxygen/smoke mask can assist occupants evacuate safely - that is why Fire and Emergency Services rely on them.
    Architects need to apply their intelligence and creativity to help solve these issues not simply recommend delegating responsibility to Fire Engineers or other experts.

    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04 Architects.

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  • No fire lobbies for the individual flats, only one escape stair on a 22 floor building. Residents complaining of grave concerns and ignored or over-ruled. No sprinklers. The most horrific outcome imaginable. All in the 6th wealthiest nation on Earth. As an architect I can only feel ashamed for 'our' industry. We all have questions to answer here.

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