Learning from Grenfell Tower

5. July 2017
Photo: Natalie Oxford/Wikimedia Commons
How can architects, professional organizations, and government bodies deter a repeat of last month’s disaster in London's North Kensington area?
First, the 14 June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire was a tragic loss of at least 80 lives, residents from some of the 24-story tower’s 129 apartments. Second, the fire was an avoidable tragedy; although started by a faulty refrigerator, the fire’s rapid spread has been attributed in great part to the building’s recently renovated exterior cladding. Third, and of interest here, the incident is one to be learned from so a similar loss of life at the hands of unsafe cladding – or improper installation or whatever turns out to be the main factor following a public inquiry – does not happen again.

The fire’s rapid spread was attributed almost immediately to the building’s façade, with day-of reports singling out two aspects of the building’s retrofitted insulated aluminum-polyethylene rainscreen system: the choice of combustible Reynobond PE panels over the more fire-resistant Reynobond FR panels; and the fire barrier at about floor level which, if installed properly, would have stopped (at least temporarily) any flames rising through the air gap between the aluminum cladding and the insulation. These reports led English authorities to test claddings on other towers. A BBC report, now two weeks old, indicates that cladding panels from 120 high-rise buildings failed fire tests. Other reports indicate that as many as 600 high-rise apartment buildings in the UK could have a similar cladding.
What architects and their clients can learn from the fire isn't solely focused on the cladding, as evidenced by the Royal Institute of British Architects’ 22 June “statement on design for fire safety.” RIBA recommends, among other things, that architects learn the details of relevant codes for fire safety while also pushing for the installation of sprinklers in similar buildings. It calls for a public inquiry (just as the Prime Minister did), a process that their member architects could assist with. Furthermore, RIBA used the statement to reiterate arguments it has been making over the years, such as including a single point of responsibility (the architect) from project conception to completion; this would counter the current situation, where specifications (of fire-retardant cladding, for example) and other areas are transferred from the architect to the contractor and their subs during the building process.

Although such countries as the United States and Germany are less concerned about the impact of the Grenfell Tower fire on current practicies (the cladding is not allowed on high-rises in most US states, and in Germany it is limited to a height of 22 meters), some countries are taking note. In Australia, for instance, a taskforce has just been launched to address non-compliant cladding in Victoria, where, in 2014, a discarded cigarette on a balcony of LaCrosse building started a fire that spread up the building's combustible facade. Nobody was killed in that incident, but the parallels with the Grenfell Tower fire are obvious.

So lessons about the cladding used on Grenfell Tower (replacing it where it's been installed on high-rises, restricting its future use, not taking shortcuts on social housing projects, etc.) are pretty clear, but the fire could also be used as an argument for the preference of low-rise dwellings over towers. Here things get a bit murkier, especially in London where building tall is sometimes necessary, both for market-rate and social housing; and when voices like Paul Joseph Watson regurgitate old arguments that traditional architecture is ideal and modern architecture is totalitarian rubbish.

From all the reports swirling around the Grenfell Tower fire, most valuable might be listening to the residents, who voiced their concerns about risks of fire in the tower but were ignored by the tenant association. These issues included insufficient egress, the absence of a sprinkler system, and the placement of gas pipes, among other things. Neither the residents nor the tenant association were apparently aware of the cladding issue, meaning the fire is much more complex than this single issue. All architects know architecture is more than just a facade; in this case it's a whole bevy of considerations that the public inquiry should make clear once it's complete.

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