Tags

TearWhat follows is a comment made in response to my previous post (Good grief) about the Grenfell tower fire from Julian LeGood (architect, retired). It’s well worth taking the time to read it in its entirety.

This is the first of three guest posts on this topic.

“Starting from the top then:

Yes, a lot of the nonsense being peddled in the media is unhelpful.

I’ve seen the various conspiracy websites. I think we can be perfectly clear, this fire wasn’t the work of white supremacists, the freemasons or the Illuminatae.

The fire service didn’t arrive 20 minutes too late or an hour and twenty minutes too late (depending whose accounts you read). Kensington Fire Station is 6 minutes drive away (I know, I’ve been there) and without doubt, the fire service were “on scene” within six minutes of taking the first 999 call. However they were not fighting the fire within six minutes of taking the call. It takes time to put on respirators, check them, determine where the fire is,enter the building, reach the correct floor and enter the flat. By this time they might well have been competing with occupants leaving the block.

We also understand that the contractors had left materials on the staircase, well perhaps not the contractors themselves, but almost certainly the utility’s sub contractor responsible for installing the new gas pipes. We also read from the blog published by the individual who aired the grievances of some of the tenants towards their landlord, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, and its property management company, that the occupants of the block had been in the habit of leaving old furniture and mattresses in the common areas. This might well have been because the council had made it so difficult for them to dispose of bulky items by closing their car park and building over it (the adjacent Academy) and making access to the tower difficult too.We can also read that Capita had inspected the block some little while back and found that the management company were not routinely been checking on the function of the emergency lighting, leaving batteries dead for some considerable time.

None of these factors would have helped the fire service access the burning flat or the residents escape the block.

There is some anecdotal evidence that the occupant of the flat where the fire began gathered some of his possessions into a bag before he alerted his neighbours. This is understandable. If everything you own is about to go up in flames, you grab what you can. What we don’t know is if he called 999 first. We understand that the fire started in his kitchen, his fridge, or maybe his cooker, caught fire. Reading those blogs we find a history of “power surges” in the block which had damaged electrical equipment and destroyed computers. This is a matter of record. More likely it was a faulty appliance. The previous major fire in 2009 was started by a faulty TV.

Either way, the landlord was not looking after its tenants if it permitted anybody to clog up the landings, staircase and lobby with pipework, materials, rubbish and didn’t maintain the emergency lighting.

I wonder if “Mr burning fridge” will go the same way as “the white fiat in the tunnel in which Dodie & Di died” and be consigned to the dustbin of conspiracy theories. He isn’t a matter of record, though personally I’m inclined to believe he exists and this was the cause of the fire.

As to the spread. Well, everybody is fixating on the cladding, as though the cladding was a single item, and with some unhelpful comments from the more strident and ignorant commentators that this was a “Vanity Project” or “making it look nice for the rich man” or “compensation to the occupants for having to put up with the building of the school next door”. I have some sympathy with those who think this was all about “prettyfing” the block. If you read the archibabble written by Studio E, the architects engaged by the council, you’d think it was.

Unfortunately the architects have to sell the aesthetics of the project to the planning department of the self same council who are commissioning the project. The planners and architects end up having to speak the same language, the “palette of colours”, the impact on the horizon, the long views from other parts of the borough, and beyond.

This project was all about energy conservation and making life for the occupants of the tower more comfortable and less expensive. The building was designed in 1969, there would have been no call for any insulation what so ever in the external walls. The walls are constructed from pre-cast concrete panels. If the occupants were lucky there might have been an airgap in the panel and a layer of asbestos, and no more.

I don’t know how the flats are heated, quite possibly by electricity, maybe underfloor heating or panels; all very expensive to run. What was being provided was an outer layer of insulation, fixed to the external walls, faced with the cladding to which the media keep referring. In between the insulation and the cladding is an airgap. This whole assembly is called “rain screen cladding” because it keeps the rain out.

The project also included new windows, “tilt & turn” which enables the occupants to clean them inside and out. The previous windows only opened 150mm. The project also included a new gas fired heating system, with high efficiency boilers to generate central heating and hot water. One imagines that with a combination of new energy efficient heating, external insulation, and new double glazed widows, the tenant’s bills would go down and their comfort levels up. I’ll come to the reasons for the spread in due course

So where did it all go wrong?

Well, from the beginning would appear to be the answer. According to the blogs tenant (actually they are not ALL tenants, some are “owner occupiers”, though what would possess somebody to purchase a flat in an elderly block for which consent to demolish had been made in 2014 I do not know) liaison and discussion had been poor. Historically poor, all over the Lancaster Estate. Things happened which angered the occupants and they were not listened to. Apparently they had been told they would have some say in respect of boiler location, that didn’t happen, some say in the window tiles, planners over ruled, and life was made fairly miserable for them during the construction period too. Nobody wants builders in their home at the best of times, and by some accounts the builders lacked tact and manners.

So, the fire starts in the flat, in the appliance, under the window, and quickly gains hold of other combustible material in the kitchen and bursts through the window which may or may not have been open. It doesn’t matter, the glazing wasn’t fire resistant, it never would be in this situation. Flames lick up the outside of the building as they would in any fire heating up the metal cladding. Much has been said about the metal cladding. It’s a sandwich panel, an outer layer of metal, just a few millimetres, a core of plastic (flammable in this instance) and an inner sheet of metal to balance the panel and stop it from warping. THe panels are butt jointed and may or may not be sealed with mastic.

None of this matters, the heat is so intense that under the onslaught of the heat coming from the fire, by now at over 1000 deg. C, the panels just buckle.

AND THIS IS WHERE IT ALL GOES HORRIBLY WRONG.

Behind the panels there is an air gap, and the flames travel up it and set fire to the insulation. The insulation is Celotex, a polyurethane type material which though hard to ignite from cold ie. you could hold a match to it and unlike polystyrene it wouldn’t ignite, at the temperatures now being experienced it most certainly does burn, like fury. Fanned by the updraughts, assisted by the “chimney effect” of the air gap it roars up the face of the building, and across it, and down. There might be “fire stops” in the airgap to slow down the fire, but slow down is all they’ll do, because wedged between the insulation and the cladding, they’ll just fall away. It’s a hot summers night so windows will be open. Even if they aren’t, the heat is so intense a series of “re-entrant” fires begin as one by one the windows fail and the fire enters the flats.

It was the WRONG INSULATION for this application. Forget what the Building Regulations say, forget what the Building Research Establishment say, it is counter intuitive to wrap a building in a flammable material.

So, why wasn’t the alternative non flammable material used? Well simply because Rockwool is three times thicker to gain the same levels of thermal insulation and considerably more difficult to handle. I’m not even sure you could over-clad a building using that thickness of Rockwool, you would probably have to compromise on the thermal insulation gain to be had. So who is to blame? Well, possibly the BRE, possibly the Building Control department at the council (though according to the records they were not consulted at design stage but were offered it up for inspection as a fait accompli and in my opinion unwisely signed it off, possibly the Department of the Environment for not updating the Building Regulations since the report was published in 2013 following the previous fire, possibly Studio E architects for not thinking about how fire behaves specifically in this situation, and possibly the sub-contractors who constructed the whole cladding assembly. We might add Celotex (St Gobain) if they knew the application to which their product was to be put; well they must have done, they sold it to a cladding company, and for good measure we’ll add the landlord for commissioning it.

HOWEVER: I doubt the cladding was the sole reason for the spread of the fire, and almost certainly not the reason for the spread of the smoke into the common areas, stairs and landings. It will be interesting, but sad, to learn how many bodies are found outside the flats and how many inside. The fire inspectors will be looking carefully at the condition of the fire doors, both to the flats themselves, and to the stairs. Had they been maintained, did they have automatic closers, and if so did they work? How about the new gas pipes installed. Had they been “fire stopped” ie. could smoke and fire pass from flat to flat, floor to floor, through the routes used by the new and existing gas pipes, drainage etc.

If Helen permits, I’ll write about human behaviour in evacuation (she’ll have to start a new blog) and why the “stay put” instruction was both right (and clearly Wrong) and remains right except when it is wrong. Sprinklers, yes or no. Integrated fire alarm and detection systems, smoke or heat detectors. The list goes on.

Mrs May didn’t need to cry, she just needed to be walking around the crowds like the opposition did. Our visible leader.

Thank you Helen for prompting me to write”