What follows is a comment made in response to my  post (Good grief) about the Grenfell tower fire from Julian LeGood (architect, retired). 

This is the fourth of four guest posts on this topic.

So, Grenfell Tower, and every other tower, what next?

Fire tower with disabled Plastic wrapCladding

First – no more wrapping any buildings, be it tower blocks, office blocks, schools or hospital, whether new or existing, in flammable building products. Never mind what the Building Research Establishment and Part B. of the Building Regulations say, wrapping buildings in plastic is not sensible.

Wrapping buildings in plastic is not sensible

It isn’t allowed in certain European Countries (my partner, an architect from Europe, knows this) and apparently it isn’t permitted in the USA, the land of tall buildings, either. There are, albeit more expensive and less easily handled alternatives. I dismissed “Rockwool” the material we are all familiar with from our lofts, as being too bulky, but St Gobain, they of the Celotex used at Grenfell Tower, along with many other manufacturers such as Nauf  produce “Glasswool”  which does not and cannot burn.  I now expect St Gobain to dip into their profits and considerably reduce the cost of alternative products.  I would also expect Rydol and Alucobond and all the other manufacturers of metal cladding to remove the flammable core. If the reports are to be believed, the cost saving was £2 per square metre.


Second – sprinklers.  I confess to having “ummed and ah’d” about this one. For years building owners resisted the use of sprinklers. It took a very serious fire in a supermarket on the south coast to have them now mandatory in similar buildings. It all came down to risk and the disproportionate damage to the contents of the building from water damage to that caused by a small fire. The accidental “tripping” of the system could literally drench a warehouse or shop.

Technology has moved on.  Sprinklers no longer “sprinkle” or “drench” (they used to be called drenchers) but now emit a fine mist of water which quickly fills the effected space and extinguishes the fire.

The “heads” of the system are more reliable and the whole system is now designed such that only the head immediately adjacent to the source of the heat is activated. The collateral damage from water is very much reduced. At first glance the introduction of sprinklers looks like a good idea.  All tall buildings now have them, I’m not entirely sure how “tall” is defined, I will check.

At first glance the introduction of sprinklers looks like a good idea.

However, retro-fitting sprinklers into residential tower blocks is not simple. One supplier suggested a  cost of only £1100/flat, which doesn’t sound a lot, but it makes three suppositions:

 (1) The exiting tower block will take the weight of the water tanks – very unlikely

(2)  That water tanks can be accommodated close by, with the necessary pumps – possible, but try getting large water tanks past an over sensitive planning department, even supposing there is room

(3) The tenants will welcome the disruption to their flat, having pipes run across the ceilings, heads fitted adjacent light fittings etc.

We know from the tenant blogs at Grenfell Tower that a significant number of tenants didn’t even want the new windows installed, because they had little say in the window style, and were being paid a paltry sum to replace the existing  curtains and blinds which could not be accommodated/no longer fitted the new windows.

It’s not even an estimate, it’s just propaganda

That £1100 doesn’t include redecorating flats or any of the construction work associated with installing tanks on the building or adjacent to it.  It’s not even an estimate, it’s just propaganda.

Having said all of that, I think sprinklers are part of the answer.  But only in the flats.  “Misting” the vinyl floors of the stairs sounds very, very dangerous. Add wet and slippery floors to darkness, smoke and panic and the mix looks very dangerous indeed.

Fire detection and alarm

Fire Alarm

Third – a fully integrated fire detection and alarm system.  This is where it gets difficult. In a “house in multiple occupancy” e.g. your typical student house; hostel etc, it is mandatory to have a fully integrated system. This means that if a fire is detected in one place, let’s say the kitchen, then everybody in the house is alerted by way of an audible and/or  visual  (but preferably both) alarm which wakens/alerts them and gives them the opportunity to escape.

Hopefully the door to the kitchen is a fire door, it hadn’t had its closer adjusted or removed, it’s not wedged open with an extinguisher or a copy of Viz, and everybody escapes.

The same, but on a slightly larger scale is true of hotels and student residences.  The number of people escaping is comparatively few and there is probably some expectation that they are largely fit and able.  The disabled residents probably live on the ground floor. In my experience of working in such buildings that has been the case. In a tower block such as Grenfell Tower, and 3000 others (really? –  I thought most of them had been blown up, and good riddance) the situation is entirely different.

Do the tenants really want a situation in which the occupant of flat 23, in burning the toast while leaving the kitchen door open  (as I do at least twice a week, because I am stupid)  sets off  the smoke detector and an integrated system and thereby calls for the evacuation of the entire block?  I don’t think so. Dangerous, full of risk, and very, very unpopular after the third false alarm.

Factor in automatic links to the fire service and it just gets worse. And it gets more difficult too. Can the completely useless management company (who judging by the blogs across the whole Lancaster Estate were incapable of repairing/replacing damaged emergency lighting, maintaining safe access for fire appliances (they permitted contractor’s and supplier’s vehicles to park on double yellow lines –  had this fire occurred during the working day it is not improbable that the fire appliances would never have been able to access the building, judging by the photographs) ) – could they be trusted to maintain such a complex system, to carry out the checks to the detectors?

Would the tenants permit access to test the detectors? And – I’m afraid to say it, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes – can certain tenants, specifically smokers, be trusted not to disable the smoke detectors with Elastoplasts and masking tap?

Human behaviour

Four – Human behaviour. Well, this one is unmanageable. I’ve written at some length about human behaviour in panic situations. Fire, or no fire, I’m going to maintain that self evacuation of hundreds of people, old, partially disabled, mothers with six children, half asleep, maybe having had a few beers, grabbing possessions and dropping them as they run, is a very, very bad idea.

Human behaviour in the event of the alarms going off. Well, the common response is “oh no, another false alarm”.  If you’ve ever lived in a student residence or stayed in a hotel with a faulty system you’ll have experienced this. After the n’th false alarm you just ignore it.

Observed human behaviour in test conditions where the “guinea pigs” (who think they are taking part in one experiment, but are actually taking part in this one) in groups of six or more will actually IGNORE the introduction of smoke into the room. Nobody wants to be the first to say “I think we should leave” as they don’t want to be seen to be the one to be alarmed. Excuses will be made “oh, it must be the air conditioning”.  It takes a leader or an outsider to say “Go!!”  This is observed behaviour.

While I have not witnessed that, I have witnessed, and indeed been guilty of, the reluctance to leave when the alarms sound.  We all know it’s just another false alarm. I’ve already mentioned “sabotaging” the fire doors by propping them open. More common is adjusting or removing the self-closers.  This is because the amount of pressure required to close a heavy fire door, and overcome the friction offered by the smoke seals, is quite considerable.  The closer has to be strong, and adjusted so that where as it closes comparatively slowly, it “slams” the last inch or so.  Try pushing a push chair, wheel chair, or carrying two bags of shopping through a fire door.  Try holding it open if you are small, young or old. It is very very difficult. In most public buildings the fire doors are held open and only close when the alarm/detection system is activated, or they open and close automatically on approach.

In Grenfell Tower, and many other similar buildings the doors will either have been compromised or simply never replaced to meet current standards. I, for one, would not want to be the land lord of a residential tower block in this climate.

And finally …

Here, Southampton City Council is installing sprinklers to their tower blocks and tonight meeting with tenants to reassure them that the cladding they are installing is safe. I have no idea what has been specified. They, together with every other landlord will, I am sure, be looking very carefully at specifications worked to over the last few decades, and this goes right back to the eighties. Other building owners will also be looking at the insulation they used in the construction of their buildings be they schools, hospitals, offices, shopping malls, or housing.  I would not recommend buying shares in St Gobain. Or Dow or several other companies. Somebody, somewhere, is going to be stomping up a lot of money to put this all right.

Helen (sort of) posed a question about the “Sort of people who live in Tower blocks” (and any social housing for that matter), well I can answer that; the whole social mix.  The very poor, perhaps on benefits, the elderly, who have either been moved from larger houses through “bedroom tax” or have lived there for many many years,  young professionals (two young architects died at Grenfell Tower, they fell in love with the view from the 20th floor apparently),  people on low incomes who never in a million years will ever be able to afford to buy in the centre of any large city or town,  disabled people,   clever people,   people who “know how to work the system”, the thick and lazy and indolent,  well read people with little formal education,  the  “lower classes”, cleaners and manual workers, the “middle classes”   nurses, , teachers just starting out.  I’ve met them all in the course of my career.  I’ve visited more council houses and housing association flats than I’ve had cold dinners.

And the solution?  Do what many cities have done and just blow the wretched places up (if you haven’t crammed a load of additional  buildings into the areas of parkland, garden, play ground and parking the original architects designed into the project) – how many times have I seen garage blocks, car parks and play grounds lost to more and more little houses.  Dundee, which I know well, stopped building high-rise in the mid seventies and by the ‘noughties had blown them up or demolished them.  It was quickly proven that far higher densities could be achieved with carefully designed low rise and medium rise housing.

People are not designed to live at height

People are not designed to live at height. How can a parent supervise the play of the older children while she deals with the younger ones (and the housework) when they are separated by 20 floors.  What sort of life does a disabled or elderly person live in a building where the lifts are unreliable and the staircases impenetrable? The solution is going to be expensive, very expensive, and very political. Oh, and most building products come from abroad now, so let’s hope the pound doesn’t fall any further against the Euro.

Related posts:
Good grief
Grenfell Tower – where did it all go wrong?
Grenfell Tower – politicians v people
Grenfell Tower – staying put

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