Nearly 4 years on, Buildingspecifier’s Joe Bradbury takes a look at the ongoing subject of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and raises concern about those still living at risk of death by fire in inadequately protected properties together with the wider impact on individual homeowners, who find themselves financially trapped in properties they cannot sell.
The horrific fire that broke out in 24-storey Grenfell Tower in 2017 brought fire safety to the forefront of our attention, causing 72 deaths and injuring a further 70 others. It is considered the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War. To this day negligence is still being sniffed out throughout the construction industry and those responsible are being held to account.
The fire was ignited by a malfunctioning fridge-freezer located on the fourth floor. Once the fire had taken hold it spread rapidly up the building’s exterior to all the residential floors. For many, the image of the tower engulfed in flame will be painfully etched in memory for many years to come.
Whilst the ACM cladding itself was found to be largely responsible for how quickly the fire spread, police confirmed that the insulation used in the refurbishment was potentially more flammable and contributory to the inferno than the cladding tiles.
The impact of the Grenfell fire on its residents and community can only be described as devastating, and the protracted and tangled ongoing investigation does nothing to alleviate the suffering of those immediately involved.
The subsequent fallout spread like a virus throughout the UK, revealing concerns in buildings both new and old.
A shocking investigation undertaken by BBC Watchdog Live after the tragedy revealed that a number of new build homes built by two major housing developers are not adequately fire safe.
Fire in figures
In April 2018 a fire was started by a cigarette dropped at ground level in a new home in Exeter. It spread up to the roof of the house and then across to other properties nearby.
This fire sparked an investigation which found missing fire barriers at 37% of homes on the estate, where the fire had taken place. This initiated wider investigation of thousands of homes throughout the South West, where over 650 homes were found to have missing or incorrectly installed fire barriers.
The BBC investigation also uncovered potentially dangerous fire safety issues in developments in Kent and West Lothian.
BBC Watchdog Live sent their own expert surveyor to a new build development in West Lothian, to examine the fire protection at four houses, after concerns were raised by one resident whose house had previously been found to have inadequate fire barriers.
According to an article on the BBC website, surveyor and expert witness Greig Adams, who carried out the testing, found poorly fitted fire barriers at all four properties, with voids and gaps around them that would prevent them stopping fire from spreading. He said “What we’ve unfortunately found is that there are fire breach issues in every house we’ve looked at. It’s a legal requirement that the cavity barriers are to be there. It’s not optional – and with good reason: it saves lives.”
There were 573,221 incidents attended by the UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) last year. Of these incidents, around 182,491 were fires. These fires resulted in 268 fatalities and over 7,000 non-fatal casualties.
Unfortunately, despite our greatest effort in prevention, fires happen… and their impact can be devastating. With this in mind, it comes as a great shock to hear that many new-builds constructed by two of the largest house building firms were sold over the last couple of years with missing or incorrectly installed fire barriers, which functions to prohibit the spread of fire throughout a property.
Trapped in unsafe housing
Figures published by the National Housing Federation (who represent housing associations in England, social landlords to 5 million people) and Crisis (the national charity for homeless people) reveal the true scale of the housing crisis in England.
Their ground-breaking research, conducted by Heriot-Watt University, showed that England is short of four million homes. To both meet this backlog and provide for future demand, the country needs to build 340,000 homes per year until 2031. Needless to say, this isn’t happening at present.
The result of this is that those living in potentially unsafe buildings are constantly being overlooked. Whilst these residents have not so far suffered physical injury, there remains the underlying, quietly pervading threat that one day they too could be victims. More immediately imperative for them is the actual damage to their individual financial status and future. They find themselves financially trapped in un-saleable properties, as surely as the victims of Grenfell were physically trapped.
Whilst their situation is obviously nowhere near as dramatic, the impact of it causes ongoing damage for those affected and their concerns continue, seemingly without resolve.
Unable to sell
In response to the Grenfell disaster, lenders initially brought in stricter requirements for fire safety, demanding an EWS1 certificate to prove that the external walls of a building are free from material that is combustible, which led to the restrictions of buying and selling affecting 450,000 more homeowners.
Campaigners voice concern that approximately 700,000 people still live in buildings that have flammable panels fitted to their exterior and that millions are finding it tough to remortgage or sell their properties.
To combat this, the government decided that owners of flats in buildings without cladding will no longer require an EWS1 form to sell or remortgage their property, but there is still a ways to go if we are to free people from bureaucratic bondage.
In an official statement given on the matter, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick MP said “Through no fault of their own, some flat-owners have been unable to sell or remortgage their homes – and this cannot be allowed to continue.
“That’s why the government has secured agreement that the EWS1 form will not be needed on buildings where there is no cladding; providing certainty for the almost 450,000 homeowners who may have felt stuck in limbo.
“However, this is only part of a wider solution and we continue to support those homeowners who do have cladding on their buildings and where there is still more to do.”
Cladding, the Witch-hunt
Cladding companies have had it rough in the past few years post-Grenfell, even the ones who pull out all the stops to ensure their product is safe and secure. To this end, the mindless witch-hunt must stop in order for the true lessons to be learned from the tragedy.
It should be stressed that it was the incorrect specification of the components within the assembly that resulted in the tragedy.As Carlton Jones Director of the MCRMA (Metal Cladding and Roofing Manufacturers Association) pointed out the word ‘cladding’ is a generic term which covers a vast array of products and assemblies. Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) is a component within a rainscreen cladding system but it must be recognised that it is available in various formulae to suit the application for which it is intended. Correctly specified, using a non-combustible grade it is a perfectly safe product, but the specification for the application on the Grenfell Tower was completely inappropriate. The lack of technical expertise through the design, specification and installation phase contributed to the failure and allowed this to happen, and this should not be viewed as the general practices of all companies involved in the design and manufacture of metal based cladding systems”.
As an industry, it is our duty to stamp out negligence. Law dictates that new build homes must implement adequate fire protection measures which meet current Building Regulations to delay the spread of fire for as long as possible to maximise chances of escape for occupants.
Fire barriers are an integral part of a fire protection strategy and in many new builds (particularly timber-framed buildings) the barriers form a seal between different areas of a house. Without them, experts suggest that fire and smoke can spread five to ten times faster.
It is therefore of the utmost importance that housebuilders uphold their responsibility, ensuring that all new buildings are fully compliant with current Building Regulations. It’s a matter of life and death.
Failure to learn from the mistakes of Grenfell can only lead to more suffering and tragedy.
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