Grenfell Tower fire raises fears over lax building regulations

The way in which cladding designed for energy efficiency was installed on the outside of the 24-storey London tower block may have been to blame for the speed at which flames spread, killing at least 17 people.

It has emerged that Town Hall checkers authorised as safe the new cladding that was installed on the exterior of the Grenfell Tower, the west London housing block that was engulfed in a horrific blaze in the early hours of yesterday morning.

The work passed Kensington and Chelsea Council's building control team’s safety checks, but documents released under the Freedom of Information Act appear to show the last fire risk assessment took place 18 months ago, prior to the project’s official completion in the middle of 2016. 

The Prime Minister today ordered a full public inquiry into the disaster in which at least 17 people are now known to have died, as potential causes continue to be pondered by building and electrical safety experts.

Speaking at 10 Downing Street shortly after her return from the site, Theresa May said: We need to know what happened. We need to know an explanation.”

The Fire Protection Association (FPA) has said external thermal insulation cladding of the type installed during the multi-million pound refurbishment work can in some circumstances result in a “chimney effect” developing, whereby any fire can sweep up rapidly once it has found its way into a void between the aluminium panels and the building fabric.

A cavity to vent moisture is thought to have formed part of the tower’s cladding, the Press Association news agency reported.

Dr Jim Glockling, technical director of the FPA, said that when particular forms of insulation were entirely encapsulated, the extent of damage by flames could be limited to a “melt-out area”, but if inbuilt features like vents and pipes are encountered by a fire this can allow the blaze to quickly tear through a building from ground to roof.

Current building regulations fail to take account of this safety risk. It is not known how many high-rise blocks in Britain have had this type of cladding installed and to what extent any gaps in the insulation were properly sealed at Grenfell Tower or any other buildings. 

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan today tweeted about concerns over safety of other similarly refurbished tower blocks and called for an interim report into the disaster to be published by the end of this summer.

Concerns were raised as far back as 2000 in a parliamentary report which referred to fire safety risks associated with types of insulation in cladding. The type of insulation used in the Grenfell Tower cladding is known as Celotex FR5000.

Wednesday’s blaze spread with astonishing speed, cutting a deadly swathe across the entire centre of the tower within just 10 minutes after the first call to the London Fire Brigade came through at 12.45am

Forty fire engines containing 200 firefighters attended the scene. Eyewitnesses 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.

The full death toll from the disaster may not be known for weeks. Definitive causes of the fire may not be known for months or years.

Mark Coles, the IET’s head of technical regulations, said: “Each residential dwelling requires a connection to utility supplies, such as electricity, gas and water and, therefore, holes need to be made in the walls to allow the cables and pipework to enter. Once the cables and pipework have been installed, the holes need to be sealed to stop the spread of smoke and fire. As the building had recently undergone refurbishment, it seems likely that this may not have happened.”

When electrical engineers cut through fire compartments, they are meant to use what are known as intumescent seals containing foam to block up gaps around cables in holes in walls. When heated, the foam expands as part of a safety feature meant to contain fire.

Grenfell Tower was fitted out with new insulation – intented to make homes more energy efficient - during refurbishment work carried out by Rydon, a private company. This was commissioned by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) and overseen by the local council, which owns the 1970s-built tower block.

Robert Bond, Rydon’s chief executive, said in a statement: “The project met all required building regulations and handover took place when the completion notice was issued by the Department of Building Control, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  We are working with the relevant authorities and emergency services and fully support their enquiries into the causes of this fire.”

Harley Facades Limited, the firm which installed the cladding, said it was not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.

Board meeting minutes from 2014 on the KCTMO website refer to power surges which residents are said to have complained about experiencing and an organisation called the Grenfell Action Group said in a blog post that its warnings of “very poor fire safety standards” had fallen on deaf ears.

A spokesman for Kensington and Chelsea Council said: “We have heard a number of theories about the cause of the fire at Grenfell Tower. All of these will be thoroughly investigated as part of the formal investigation which has already begun.”

Grenfell Tower fire infographic

Grenfell Tower fire infographic

Image credit: Graphic News

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