Whatever caused Grenfell, trust needs to be rebuilt
Image: Metropolitan Police
The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in London has put construction and its buildings and processes under the spotlight as never before. Rebuilding trust starts now, says editor Denise Chevin.
In the early hours of 14 June the most tragic incident was unfolding in west London. Fire had engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block in Kensington, leaving an enormous loss of life, many injured and a nation asking why, in 2017, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, 600 people were living in a death trap. How could this possibly happen?
All aspects of the management of the building and the way its 2016 refurbishment was undertaken have come under intense scrutiny in the search for answers as to why the fire could take hold so rapidly, leaving so many people trapped to perish in their homes.
Are we trying to upgrade social housing on the cheap? Did the building contravene fire regulations in some way, either as the work was carried out or through something that may have happened subsequently? What was the role of Building Control? Are the Building Regulations themselves out of date and inadequate or too flexible?
Not least under the spotlight is whether the rainscreen cladding – reportedly a polyethylene-filled aluminium sandwich panels – should be deemed acceptable under the regulations for high-rise buildings of this type when it’s not in other parts of the world.
What we do know more generally is that fire regulations covering high-rise building and refurbishment are fiendishly complicated, particularly where rainscreen cladding is concerned, and are open to interpretation, or misinterpretation.
And we know too that the most well-engineered plan on paper can become useless if holes of just a few millimetres wide are drilled in the wrong place, thus rendering fire stops useless – though again it has to be emphasised there is no evidence that this has happened at Grenfell.
An article we ran recently gives an indication of these types of workmanship problems. Fire inspectors from BRE Global said that spread of fire in 30% of cases they had investigated was due to poor-quality workmanship – though they weren’t talking specifically about high-rise refurbs.
There has also been a recent spate of cases where fire stops have been discovered to have been breached in hospitals and schools, thankfully before any fire.
It would seem too that, generally, social landlords need to up their game on fire risk management – reports about the sector have described fire doors missing and inspections failing to take place.
And then there’s the issue of sprinklers. Only 1% of tower blocks in social housing have them. That’s despite a recommendation for their use from the coroner in the Lakanal House enquiry after a fire in the Southwark tower block in 2009 killed six people. But this is not an exact science and at this stage, so soon after the event, experts have mixed views whether even sprinklers could have prevented the rapid spread and loss of life.
It certainly doesn’t look good for the government that a promised review of fire regulations in the wake of the Lakanal House fire hasn’t materialised, whatever turns out to be the reason.
We will have to wait for some time before the answers to all of these questions are bottomed out. The prime minister has quite rightly promised that there will be a full public inquiry with interim findings to shed light on what happened as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, fire minister Nick Hurd has ordered urgent inspections on tower blocks round the country. Any doubts that are unearthed must lead to residents being speedily rehoused. It would also be reassuring to know that no further work like this is carried out until we know exactly what happened and why.
Whatever the answers – and it wouldn’t be unexpected if there were many contributing factors – this is the Ronan Point of our generation, and a seminal moment in construction.
We must do what it takes: changes to legislation, changes to procurement, shake-up of management, greater accountability and prosecutions, more inspections, more money. Trust has to be rebuilt and lessons learnt. And like the process following the King’s Cross fire in 1987, acted on swiftly and to the letter.