London fire: Authorities need to reconsider common practice of cladding buildings in metal sheets, experts say

It was far from the first time that the metal plating has been blamed for spreading a fire

Andrew Griffin@_andrew_griffin
Thursday 15 June 2017 17:08

Authorities may need to ban the cladding used on the outside of Grenfell Tower, experts have said.

The cladding – metal panels that were stuck on the outside of the building to help insulate and spruce up the building – has been blamed for the shockingly rapid spread of the fire up and across the building.

Authorities are now launching an inquiry into how the building could have been built and left in such a way as to allow it to burn so quickly and so dramatically.

The public inquiry may find that the cladding that was wrapped around the building was installed in such a way, experts said. That might lead to the banning of the use of cladding on the outside of buildings, or at least the kind of cladding used to insulate and pretty up Grenfell Tower.

The chairman of the National Fire Chiefs Council said that such re-cladding work “certainly needs to be re-considered”.

Roy Wilsher also told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that sprinklers "may or may not have helped" at the high-rise building, saying: "It really depends how the fire developed. If it spread up the outside, it could have been difficult for sprinklers, and retrofitting of blocks that are made of steel and concrete is a difficult process but is certainly something we need to look at again."

He added: "The most significant thing is the cause and why it spread so quickly and so devastatingly, affecting so many people - that's something we've not seen in our careers ... we've been to many, many fires in our times and we've not seen one like this before."

The National Fire Chiefs Council clarified that it was too early to say whether the type of cladding or its construction had contributed to the fire. But a spokesperson said it was clear that the building should never have been built in that way – and that it would be exploring whether the problem would require new regulations, or new ways of enforcing them.

But it’s far from the first time that cladding has been blamed for a deadly fire. And it isn’t even the first time that authorities have warned that more danger and death could result.

Cladding has been blamed for spreading fires elsewhere in the world. It has been connected with fires in Australia, Dubai and elsewhere – in all cases being blamed for carrying the flames out onto the outside of the building, and carrying it rapidly up and around the rest of the structure.

In last year’s Melbourne fire, an analysis by the local fire brigade said that "The extremely vertical nature of the burn patterns to the exterior face of the wall suggest that the Alucobest aluminium cladding, along with the foam lagging and the PVC pipe of the building wall, contributed to the fire load and the rapid spread of the fire up the vertical face of the building to the floors and balcony areas located above."

It concluded that "Had the external wall cladding been of a non-combustible type, the likelihood of fire spread beyond the level of ignition would have been greatly reduced."

Concerns were also identified in a 2000 parliamentary report that was launched after a fire ripped through a 14-storey block of flats.

It said that developers needed to work harder to ensure that cladding is non-combustible and didn’t pose too much of a risk to people living inside.

"We do not believe it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks,” the report read.

"We believe that all external cladding systems should be required either to be entirely non-combustible, or to be proven through full-scale testing not to pose an unacceptable level of risk in terms of fire spread."

It added: "There have been few recorded incidents of serious fire spread involving external cladding, and, although in our view any loss of life in incidents such as these should be prevented if at all possible, neither have there been many deaths."

Grenfell tower fire: How the disaster unfolded

Extra fire safety checks are already being conducted in similar high-rise tower blocks. Local authorities including London’s Camden, Newham, Croydon and Redbridge have all launched new reviews of their social housing.

Officials said that those tall blocks were already subject to measures to keep them safe. But they would be looking again at the buildings to see if new action had been taken.

Some buildings in those areas used the same exterior cladding, fitted by the same company. On one estate in Camden, for instance, Harley Facades worked with Rydon Construction – the exact same pairing – to install the same rain screen cladding.

Elsewhere, including in Scotland, officials said they were looking to find high-rise blocks that used the same cladding as in Grenfell Tower.

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