Grenfell Tower Inquiry sets sights on fire testing and certification
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is to set its sights on the testing and certification of building materials’ reaction to fire, after it found that the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was in breach of safety regulations.
A report following the first phase an independent public inquiry into the disaster, overseen by retired high court judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has been published today.
The long-awaited 1,000-page report sets out in detail what happened on the night of 14 June 2017, when the Grenfell Tower disaster occurred. It was circulated to the bereaved, survivors and residents earlier this week but details leaked into the mainstream media yesterday.
The report found that the building’s aluminium composite (ACM) cladding panels were the “principal reason” for the spread of a devastating fire that killed 72 people.
Moore-Bick said: “It was not my original intention to include in Phase 1 of the Inquiry an investigation into the extent to which the building complied with the requirements of the Building Regulations. However, as I have explained in Chapter 26, there was compelling evidence that the external walls of the building failed to comply with Requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010, in that they did not adequately resist the spread of fire having regard to the height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it.”
The building underwent a £10m refurbishment by contractor Rydon that was completed in 2016. During hearings for the first phase of the inquiry, the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) lawyers sought to argue that the building was “catastrophically non-compliant with fire safety requirements” and that it could not have been expected to cope if the building was change to allow fire to spread as it did.
Despite Moore-Bick’s praise for rank-and-file officers, the report criticised the LFB, asserting that the “preparation and planning for a fire such as Grenfell” was short of what should have been expected, despite the fact that senior officers knew of the risk posed by cladding fires on high-rise buildings after incidents in other countries.
Moore-Bick recommended that the owner and manager of every high-rise residential building be required by law to provide their local fire and rescue service with information about the design of its external walls, together with details of the materials of which they are constructed and to inform the fire and rescue service of any material changes made to them.
Phase two of the Inquiry
Looking ahead to phase two, the report said its principal focus would be on the decisions that led to the installation of highly combustible cladding on a high-rise residential building and the wider background against which they were taken.
The direction of the inquiry was driven by the fact that the primary cause of the rapid spread of fire up, around and down the building was the use of ACM rainscreen panels with a polyethylene core, the report said.
It added that one area of “particular concern” to be examined in phase two included the regime for testing and certifying the reaction to fire of materials intended for use in construction, as well as the design and choice of materials, and the performance of fire doors in the tower, in particular whether they complied with relevant regulations.
The report said: “In the light of the expert evidence, in particular Dr Barbara Lane’s supplemental report, there are already grounds for thinking that the current regime for testing the combustibility of materials and cladding systems, particularly those chosen for use in high-rise buildings, may be neither as rigorous nor as effectively enforced as it should be. Doubts have also arisen about the reliability of the certification of certain materials for use in high-rise buildings. Grave concern inevitably arises simply from the fact that it was possible for highly combustible materials to be used for the purposes of refurbishing and cladding a building like Grenfell Tower.
“How that was possible is a question that may be relevant to many aspects of the construction industry, including manufacturers of products currently widely available on the market. Pending further investigation it would clearly be sensible for anyone who is responsible for the fire safety of an existing building or who is considering the use of products on high‑rise buildings to scrutinise the information about them provided by the manufacturers and exercise considerable care to ensure that they meet the required standards. These concerns extend to the adequacy of the regulations themselves, the quality of the official statutory and non-statutory guidance currently available, the effectiveness of the tests currently in use, the arrangements for certifying the compliance of materials with combustibility criteria and the manner in which materials are marketed.”
Meanwhile Moore-Bick has determined that certain areas no longer require investigation, including the question of the width of the stairs in the building, given that they provided the sole means of access to the upper floors of the tower for firefighters. The report found that the stairs appear to have complied with legislation in force at the time of their construction. The Inquiry has also ruled out further investigation of the supply of gas to the building, which it found did not play a significant part in the outbreak and spread of fire. Suspicion that a surge in electrical power to the building helped cause the fire to break out has also been ruled out.
Hearings for the second phase of the inquiry, examining how Grenfell Tower came to be in a condition that allowed a tragedy of such a scale to occur are set to start in January 2020.