The Road to Grenfell: A Disaster They Knew Would Happen
The Road to Grenfell:
A Disaster They Knew Would Happen
Listening to coverage of the Grenfell Inquiry on the news, day by day, it would be easy to believe that it was some huge conspiracy and, to some extent, you would be right. The use of flammable cladding was effectively hidden in plain sight, but the fact is that its manufacturers were doing nothing technically illegal at the time and, more importantly for potential whistleblowers, they made Robert Maxwell look lax when it came to litigiousness.
I have worked in and around this sector for over 30 years and, following a site inspection at a high-rise residential building, I once told a building specifier that the selected cladding was unfit for purpose. It was not only inadequate in terms on insulation, it also posed a clear fire risk. I concluded the site visit, got in my car and drove back to the office. When I got to my desk less than one hour later, there was a legal letter from the manufacturer of said cladding in my email inbox, threatening immediate legal action if I continued to warn against use of their product or disseminate the risks it presented. I won’t name the company, but you won’t get a prize for guessing.
I share this story not to defend myself and my peers, but to give you some context on the situation we were in. It was quite openly discussed within the industry that a Grenfell-type disaster was likely. There had been previous fire incidents, such as Lackanal House in Camberwell, in 2009, where six people died, but cladding was not seen a direct factor and the death toll was not high enough to register. The fact is that these materials were within the letter, if not the spirit, of the law, and many within the industry felt powerless to act.
How We Got to Grenfell
I believe that this culture of indifference had its roots in the early-1990s recession, when the property market crashed and many firms were looking at ways to save money on both new builds and refurbs. Cladding was seen as a cheap and effective way to revamp older buildings, especially the 1960s tower blocks that were then coming to end of their originally-intended lifespan, with insulation and glazing that fell far below contemporary standards.
It started off with the need to find a compromise, almost certainly without malign intent, at least in the beginning. Effective heat insulation is thick – Just think of how much insulation you find in the average loft – but that simply isn’t practical on a high-rise block. You either put it inside and make the rooms smaller, or you hang it on the outside, but there is a limit to how thick these external panels can be.
Since the demise of asbestos, materials that are flammable are not necessarily effective as heat insulation, and vice versa. So, a compromise was found whereby the cladding could contain a relatively thin layer of insulative material within a metal casing. This became known as Class 0 (Zero) and was written into official guidance in Part B of the Building Regulations 2000 (Modern Regulations 2000). This stipulated that ‘the external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, having regard to the height, use and position of the building’.
The problem with Class 0 and the regulation of the standard is that it was relatively undefined in terms of the precise nature of the materials used and the method of manufacture. This allowed manufacturers to create cladding products that were within the letter of the law, while cutting costs in both materials and production. This is what led, in turn, to the situation where cheaper, flammable cladding was specified for the Grenfell refurbishment, resulting in a cash saving of £126,000, or roughly £1,774 for each of the eventual victims.
I don’t deny that a compromise was needed, but it would have been perfectly possible to create a cladding product that was fire retardant and also compliant with the required levels of thermal conductivity. What we ended up with a was a combustible product marketed in plain sight, with organisations like the NHBC cowed by the power and influence of the cladding manufacturers. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
Not Just the Cladding
While the flawed design and specification of the cladding was undoubtedly the primary factor that made Grenfell such a major disaster, there were other factors. Despite their negative reputation, the builders of many of these 1960s tower blocks did actually take the time to design fireproofing into the fabric of their buildings, and this was the case at Grenfell itself.
In subsequent decades, we have seen these measures compromised by internal and external renovations, which have often led to the impairment or total negation of the fireproofing measures. This is exactly what we saw at Grenfell, where the flammable cladding allowed the flames to bridge the internal fire barriers between each apartment.
Even with the use of the defective cladding, there were measures that could have helped to mitigate this from happening, such as steel barriers within the cladding framework or extension of the fireproofing to come between the cladding of each apartment. Again, either due to the pressure on costs or pure ignorance on the part of the specifiers, this did not happen.
Learning the Hard Way
All disasters are ultimately preventable and most teach us lessons we should already have learnt, but some are more straightforward than others. When the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized, for example, the ferry industry was reminded of the need for better monitoring and communication within an effective chain of command. The Kings Cross Fire taught Transport for London that dirty wooden escalators and cigarettes are never a good mix. Grenfell has exposed a rotten culture that should never have been permitted to develop in the first place.
We know from the emails read out at the Grenfell Inquiry that the risks with this cladding were not only known about, they were actively discussed between colleagues who expressed their hope that a disaster would never happen, but knew that it might. It’s all the more galling when you consider the fact that the manufacturers would probably have been able to sell a more expensive and fit for purpose product, if only they were collectively honest about the issue.
It is to my eternal regret that many specifiers and engineers were fully aware of the issues with cladding as well, but as I’ve explained, the cladding itself was perfectly legal and the cladding manufacturers were highly adept at closing down any hint of a whistleblower. The government also seemed largely uninterested, which probably contributed to the unwillingness of so many to speak out.
Putting Things Right
Grenfell was a short, sharp shock to an apathetic and arrogant industry that had, almost literally, got away with murder for too long. Culture is a thing that’s slow to develop and, like endemic racism in a police force, this is not something we are going to put right overnight. As an industry, we face a multitude of issues and it is now up to those of us who really care about doing the right thing to rebuild the reputation of our industry.
With so many people still living with the after-effects of Grenfell and the government refusing to recognise that the Class 0 guidance was a factor in the disaster, or even at fault, we are going to be living with the aftershocks for a long time yet. While short-term measures such as waking watch, enhanced fire systems and sprinkler installations will hopefully mean that there are no more deaths as a result of this scandal, leaseholders in blocks below 18 metres are going to be living with the financial consequences for many years to come, and some may lose their homes altogether.
The legacy of Grenfell is 30 years of dangerous buildings, where cost-conscious specifiers were willing to cut corners, even if it meant risking lives. In fire management and evacuation strategies, cladding barely received a mention, so fire engineers were left in blissful ignorance while the bean counters rode roughshod over the safety of millions of building occupants.
There are no quick fixes and, even now, my team are constantly criticised for being too strict or too lenient when we survey a residential block in line with the revised (post-Grenfell) regulations. The truth is that compliance is only one small step. Replacing the cladding and updating the regulations will not be enough, unless we can transform the culture of the entire sector and move away forever from the central focus on value for money above all else.
Risk assessors will always have priorities that compete with those of building specifiers, and that’s not a bad thing in itself, but what we need is a workable compromise, and I hope that’s what will be achieved in the future. Before Grenfell, the industry behaved like a driver who gets his MOT and then proceeds to drive like a crazed idiot for the rest of the year. What we need are drivers who get their MOT and then drive carefully, making sure that their passengers and pedestrians are kept safe and secure.
28 05 2021