An investigation by fire specialists BRE Global into the Grenfell Tower disaster was leaked exclusively to the Evening Standard, and their findings singled out the building's recent renovation as a major cause of the fire’s disastrous impact. Compiled as a part of the police investigation into the June 2017 fire in London that killed 71, the 212-page report, dated January 31, 2018, claims that the poor quality of materials used and substandard installation practices during the 2014-2016 renovation turned the tower into a tragedy waiting to happen. Built in 1974, the original Clifford Wearden and Associates-designed concrete tower block had been designed to passively contain potential fires. But the BRE report claims that the refurbishment failed to meet fire safety standards, and that cost-cutting led to serious mistakes throughout. It further states that, pre-renovation, the building's original concrete facade would not have allowed the fire to spread beyond its fourth-floor starting point in Flat 16. BRE identified several damning pieces of evidence of serious incompetence in the renovation. Besides the well-publicized use of a combustible polyethylene (combustible plastic) core in the aluminum-clad facade, the report also identified alleged incompetence by the contractors. Cavity barriers, which should have expanded when exposed to heat and sealed off the gap between the new cladding and original facade, were either too small, installed upside down or back-to-back. Instead of sealing the gap off, they instead created a “chimney effect” and funneled flames higher up the structure. BRE also attributed the fire's rapid spread to the installation of window frames that were approximately six inches shorter than the span of the concrete columns they had been installed between, and the use of a rubber membrane, foam insulation, and lightweight plastic panels to fill the gap. None of these materials would have provided over 30 minutes of fire resistance. Instead of restraining the fire, these materials allegedly fueled it, and allowed the fire to re-enter the building from the facade cavity. Further compounding the issue is BRE’s finding that only 17 percent of apartments had automatic door closers that worked, which would have kept the fire from spreading to the building’s hallways and core. Other than the building’s total lack of sprinklers (a fact that caused an outcry in Britain when it was revealed), the BRE reports: “A building of Grenfell’s height ought to have been fitted with a wet rising main [which contains water at all times] as part of the refurbishment; instead the existing dry rising main [which has to be supplied from a fire engine] was extended and modified.” Because the surrounding landscaping only allowed a single fire engine at the base of the tower, firefighters were unable to create an adequate amount of water pressure to reach the building’s upper floors. While the investigation into the Grenfell fire is still ongoing, plans for the site’s remains have been moving full speed ahead. Once the forensic analysis of the building is complete at the end of this year, the tower will be razed and the site handed over to survivors of the fire, with plans to convert the site into a memorial.
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An architectural research agency devoted to the innovative investigations of catastrophes and violence has just launched an inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, a June 2017 blaze that engulfed a West London social housing complex and killed 71 people and injured 70 more. Forensic Architecture put out a call on Twitter today, asking witnesses to send in videos of the conflagration to kick off a "a long-term and open-ended" inquiry into the incident. Experts contend that the fire was hastened by the facade's cladding and highly flammable polystyrene insulation. Forensic Architecture, directed by architect Eyal Weizman, is a collaboration between architects, computer specialists, journalists, filmmakers, scientists, and others, is based at Goldsmiths, University of London. Far from a mere video content farm, the group uses its resources to illuminate the inner workings of conflict situations, often taking amateur footage as a basis for their analysis. Its findings are deployed in courts and human rights reports, among other fora. Forensic Architecture took to Twitter to encourage witnesses to send in their movies of the event:
Grenfell Tower, a 24-story Brutalist building in North Kensington, was designed by Clifford Wearden and Associates and completed in the 1970s. Forensic Architecture is compiling the videos, determining the orientation of the (usually) smartphone-wielding videographer, and projecting them onto a 3-D model of the building. Would-be contributors can submit their footage, anonymously or not, here. The news comes on the heels of an announcement that London's Adjaye Associates, along with five other firms, have been selected to share ideas for the future of Lancaster West Estate, the municipal housing complex that hosted Grenfell Tower. If an architect is selected and everything goes according to plan, work on the project is slated to begin in 2019.
Today we are launching a long-term and open-ended project on the #Grenfell Tower fire. Support the project, learn more, and share with us your video footage at https://t.co/WFzcUA5gRZ pic.twitter.com/av3uBZsYAZ— ForensicArchitecture (@ForensicArchi) March 21, 2018
The United Kingdom has announced that it will be turning over the future of the Grenfell Tower site in West London over to victims and families of those affected by the devastating fire in June of last year that ultimately claimed 72 lives. In a statement released this morning, the UK’s Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government outlined a set of principles for guiding decision-making at the site with those affected given majority control–it’s presumed that the site will be razed and become a memorial moving forwards. The agreement was jointly forged and signed by the government, the survivors, and the local Kensington and Chelsea council. While the burned-out remnants of the council-owned tower block are still standing, it’s expected that the gutted remains will be torn down at the end of 2018 following an in-depth forensic analysis. In a scathing interim report, Dame Judith Hackitt, part of a group evaluating the government’s failure in preventing the fire, placed the blame on cost cutting and the negligence of the regulatory system. It isn’t the first charge levied against the government for being complicit in the Grenfell disaster, and a debate on public housing has been roiling Britain since last summer. Public officials are hoping that handing over the fate of Grenfell Tower to the community will alleviate some of the blowback and have stressed that this agreement is meant to bring closure to the affected. The local Latimer Road Tube station may also be renamed to Grenfell at some point in the future. “Since day one of my leadership I have been clear,” said the leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, Elizabeth Campbell. “The council will listen every step of the way to the survivors, the bereaved, and the wider community and assist in any way it can to ensure that a lasting memorial is put in place.” The full text of the principles can be found here. It’s uncertain whether the move will assuage anger at the government over the Grenfell fire, as the investigation has seemingly stalled out in recent months. It may also do little to combat claims that the flammable cladding was installed to improve views of the tower from the wealthier communities nearby.
Since the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, the United Kingdom is attempting to come to terms with a ubiquitous feature of its urban landscape, the council-owned tower block. Built in 1974, the Grenfell Tower had recently-installed cladding meant to insulate the decades-old structure. Instead, the renovation served as an accelerant, leaping over the concrete floor plates that should effectively seal potential fires. The severity of the conflagration within a council-owned tower housing some of society’s most vulnerable raises the question of whether the British regulatory environment and construction industry facilitated such a tragedy. The Guardian reports that the ‘Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety,’ has lodged a searing indictment of Britain’s construction industry and governmental regulation of high-rises. Authored by Dame Judith Hackitt, the report describes the practices that led to the Grenfell Tower fire as being caused by a “mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility,” and the use of third-party inspections that are “open to abuse given the potential conflicts of interests, with growing levels of mutual dependence between developers and contracted inspectors.” In short, the regulatory organs tasked with insuring building safety are increasingly in collusion with the property interests they are meant to police. With more than a million people living in council-owned tower blocks, the review of British building practices and the regulation of high-density developments is imperative. As noted by The Guardian, Hackitt described the “whole system of regulation” as “not fit for purpose, leaving room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so.” Although Hackitt’s report does not provide a specific framework to address the safeguarding of the country’s council-owned tower blocks, she emphasizes the need for greater clarity within regulatory guidance documents, increased scrutiny of inspectors and developers, as well as an examination of sprinklers, escape routs, cladding and alarm systems.
In West London, a devastating tower block fire has claimed the lives of 17 people. The fire appears to have spread via recently-installed cladding to the block, known as Grenfell Tower, which was originally built in 1974. That cladding was applied last year to the tune of $11 million; it was installed to insulate the 40-year-old structure and to appease the view from nearby conservation areas and luxury flats. Planning documents from 2014 obtained by The Independent read: "Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east.... The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area." The documents also included: "The re-clad materials and new windows will represent a significant improvement to the environmental performance of the building and to its physical appearance." The cladding project was part of the Grenfell Tower Regeneration Project carried out by design consultant Rydon for the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO), who consulted the London firm, STUDIO E LLP, whose name appears on plans. The spandrel wall panel system used an ACM cassette rainscreen with an aluminum composite material covering polystyrene insulation. Polystyrene, according to the German flammability and combustibility rating system, is highly flammable or "Easily Ignited." Subsequently, it is banned from being used in any exposed installations in building construction if the material is not flame-retardant. When the facade work was finished, Rydon issued a statement saying the "rain screen cladding, replacement windows, and curtain wall facades have been fitted giving the building a fresher, modern look." "The issue is that, under building regulations, only the surface of the cladding has to be fire-proofed to 'class 0,' which is about surface spread," said Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor and a fire safety expert in The Guardian. "The stuff behind it doesn’t, and it’s this which has burned." Speaking to The Architect's Newspaper (AN), a London Fire Brigade Firefighter said that the structure's cladding "made it act like a chimney." The cavity behind the panels, he explained, allowed smoke to travel up the building and heat up the new facade before setting it on fire. "If the cladding hadn't been there then the fire definitely wouldn't have spread that quickly. Usually, in tower fires, the concrete levels act as a sealed lock to contain the fire, but this has not happened here." The Firefighter added that people who had their windows open during the hot weather could also have been a factor: this allowed the fire to reach more fuel such as furniture. Despite the reported number of deaths, he said he wouldn't be surprised if that rose to 100. Another London firefighter told AN that there are "a lot more [fatalities] than they have announced." Could this tragedy have been prevented? Many think so. There were repeatedly reported concerns to KCTMO, a private company in London's wealthiest borough. These concerns, made by residents, raised issues of fire safety yet were ignored. In numerous blog posts that explicitly warned of a fire "catastrophe," the council—instead of helping—replied by threatening legal action. Furthermore, 90 percent of residents signed a petition calling for an investigation into the organization that runs the building. However, the council turned it down. In addition to this, a fire action notice put up by KTCMO in the tower told residents to stay in their flat in the event of a fire. If that wasn't enough, a fire at another London tower block (at Lakanal House, in 2009) which resulted in six fatalities appears to have been ignored. Findings in the resulting analysis discovered that inadequate fire risk assessments and panels on the exterior walls did not provide the required fire resistance. The local council was, however, fined $727,263 for its negligence. After such a tragedy, one would expect fire safety standards for buildings to be updated. It appears that was not the case. Though amendments were made in 2007, 2010 and 2013, none addressed the specific issues raised by Lakanal House. In 2016, seven years after the fire, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell said that the government will review part B of the UK's Building Regulations, a section which covers fire safety. This year, Ronnie King, Honorary administrative secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, said the building regulations "haven't taken account of the Lakanal House fire inquest, or updated recent accredited research." STUDIO E LLP's work for KCTMO was approved in 2012, before Barwell's announcement of a review into a fire which happened in 2009. The incompetence and apathy regarding building fire safety are shocking, but this tragedy is the result of deregulation in the housing sector and removal of red tape that supposedly allows developers more freedom to build. Instead, it leads to worse and less safe housing conditions. And amazingly, the story of willful ignorance of experts continues. A survey from 2015 by the Fire Sector Federation, which discusses fire and rescue organizations, found that 92 percent of members thought that regulations were “long overdue an overhaul,” stipulating that they do not cater to modern day design and construction methods. In 2013, then London Mayor Boris Johnson of The Conservative Party told a Labour opponent to "get stuffed" when he was questioned about cuts to the fire service. More recently, in March this year, experts warned that the (Conservative) government's delay in reviewing building regulations could be "endangering tower blocks throughout the UK." Roughly 4,000 British tower blocks are in danger because of the outdated regulations. “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," architect and fire expert Sam Webb told The Guardian. As a result of the fire, Grenfell Tower's displaced residents are now without a home, and that's a tough thing in Kensington and Chelsea where the average house price is $1,748,158. During the final stages of the housing bill in the Commons in early 2016, a Labour amendment to ensure landlords were required to keep homes in a liveable standard was voted down by 312 votes to 219, voted for by nearly the entire incumbent Conservative party. At that time, 39 percent of Tory MPs were landlords. To cater for the displaced and newly homeless residents, many are kindly offering their homes out for people to stay. Meanwhile, there are 1,399 empty homes in Kensington and Chelsea, more than anywhere else in the UK. The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has ordered a full public inquiry into the event.
Two pretty cool things happened this month in the world of fire safety. Both products are suitable for commercial and residential use and require little effort when being added to existing spaces. The Plumis Automist Smartscan can be easily retrofitted in just a few hours, as it connects to the buildings existing water supply using flexible low-pressure hoses. The sprinkler uses a sensor to constantly monitor the room and detect a change in the rooms temperature. If a hot-spot is detected the sprinkler will pop-out and spray a fine mist directly at the targeted area which results in less damage while also saving water (about 90 percent). The system is not quite available for purchase, but has been undergoing extensive testing in both the U.S. and the U.K. The Tarkett Safe-T first system uses photoluminescent technology to clearly mark exit paths in event of fire or power outage. The systems is compliant with International Building Code and uses no electricity, in case back up systems are not available. The light comes from the use of non-toxic inorganic strontium aluminate crystals that absorb light source energy. The product is highly durable which makes it perfect for high-traffic areas.
A raging fire that consumed a luxury skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates on New Year’s Eve is raising concerns about the safety of a number of ultra-high towers that have come to define contemporary Dubai. Just a few hours before midnight last Thursday, fire erupted at the Address Downtown Hotel, a 63-story building near the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The flames spread to cover approximately 40 floors in just minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPCL3sNVBcM The New Year’s Eve fire is not the first to break out at one of the city’s super-tall towers. In February of 2015, a fire erupted at an 86-story structure, regrettably named the Torch, which was the tallest residential building in the world when it opened in 2011. In 2012, a large fire gutted the Tarmweel Tower, a 35-story residential building, rendering it uninhabitable. https://twitter.com/AtiehS/status/682617847139418112 In all three instances, the buildings’ cladding panels, which, according to the website Gulf Business, can contain a dangerous mix of aluminum and polyurethane, are likely the cause of the rapid rates at which the fires spread. The chemical combination is also highly combustible in dry, desert air. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EXGvUCIdUc While such cladding is not necessarily hazardous, it can become extremely flammable under specific conditions, and depending on the building’s design. In an interview with The National, Samer Barakat, the chief executive of Alumco, which supplied the panels of the Address building, stated that two-thirds of the buildings in Dubai are covered with non-fire rated aluminum composite panels (ACP). “From our side we complied. We gave all our submissions, there was approval on every submission according to specification,” he told the UAE newspaper. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=mXNMaCBw-Lk By the time the United Arab Emirates changed its Fire and Life Safety Code to mandate fire-retardant cladding for all buildings taller than 50 feet in 2013, numerous tall buildings erected during Dubai’s construction boom had already used non-fire rated exterior cladding. The Address Hotel was completed in 2008. The recently enacted regulations do not apply to existing buildings, however. And while the cost of replacing cladding on skyscrapers built before 2013 with safer materials would be an extremely costly undertaking, the cost of not doing anything—which could include possible demolition and replacement due to severe damages—could be far worse.
If you thought the 2009 NYC Firefighter “Hunks” Calendar was hot, take a look at the FDNY’s newest training tool: the nation’s only high-rise fire simulator. Unveiled last Thursday at the FDNY’s High Rise Operations Symposium, the $4.2 million simulator on the department’s Randall’s Island training facility mimics conditions the city's firefighters face when battling fires several stories up. Funded largely by actor Denis Leary's The Leary Firefighters Foundation, the brick building contains mock elevators, a smoke system and standpipes, according to the Daily News. A video and more photos after the jump.