Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Camberwell flats blaze kills six

Leading fire engineers this week blamed the failure of fire containment measures in a 1960s south London tower block for the spread of a fire which killed six people last Friday.

The fire broke out in the fourteen storey Lakanal House in Camberwell last Friday evening.

The London Fire Brigade said the fire started on the ninth floor and spread rapidly to the 11th floor. Falling debris is thought to have spread the fire further down the building.

“There was an erratic nature to the fire spread − it went down as well as up,” said Mott MacDonald buildings and infrastructure director Leon Higgins.

“The compartmentalisation hasn’t worked. Normally a fire would be contained by constructing each apartment in a firesafe material to form a firesafe box,” he said, adding that the failure was not necessarily a design flaw.

“The compartmentalisation hasn’t worked. But it doesn’t mean there’s a design fault.”

Leon Higgins, Mott MacDonald

“The compartmentalisation could have been breached in a number of ways. Fire doors could have been left propped open or there could be a breach in the risers,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there’s a design fault.”

To comply with Building Regulations, each flat should have been designed to contain a fire for at least one hour. But the fire spread quickly and erratically through the building, indicating a problem with fire containment.

Voids in the building

“If you look at the façade, there was burn out [in one place] at the fourth floor, and then two floors above, it jumps across [to the next flat],” said Buro Happold associate director Andy Nicholson.

“Normally [fire damage] would go straight up the façade. I can only think there might be holes in the compartmentalisation.

“For it to have spread between compartments is strange and it strikes me there are voids in the building. You need to look at the materials and whether they have performed or the maintenance.”

“It’s been recently refurbished and in my experience it’s difficult to get the fire compartmentalisation right when refurbishing.”

Fathi Tarada, Halcrow fire safety engineering

A London Borough of Southwark spokesman said that the building had been in good condition and had undergone a £35M refurbishment programme two years ago. This included new kitchens, bathrooms, internal and external doors and the replacement of timber windows with UPVC windows.

However, the refurbishment work could have disturbed the integrity of the fire walls between apartments, said Halcrow fire safety engineering director Fathi Tarada.

“It’s been recently refurbished and in my experience it’s difficult to get the fire compartmentalisation right when refurbishing,” said Tarada.

“All those penetrations need to be sealed well so as to restore the level of fire protection. It’s often left to the last minute or ignored. It’s about knowing how to seal a penetration and getting it checked. It costs a little more, but it’s worthwhile.”

Tenant behaviour and building maintenance

The London Fire Brigade confirmed hard wired fire alarms were functioning but the building did not have a sprinkler system.

The building has a single central staircase, which is acceptable under current building regulations providing that the stairs are no more than 7.5m from each flat and fire doors are provided within the lobby.

Engineers said tenant behaviour and building maintenance could have contributed to the fast spread of fire.

“Fire doors are often propped open as they’re considered a nuisance,” said Tarada. “Fire doors have intumescent seals − in case of fire they expand and stop smoke.If not maintained, the strips fall off. It’s also not uncommon for door closers to be removed. The staircase is also meant to be sterile with no combustibles stored there.”

“The flats are not deathtraps and it is not a problem with design,” stressed Nicholson. “I would look for councils to go down and look at the situation. If there are holes [in compartmentalisation] or poor maintenance, it should be picked up.”

How the flat fire spread

  1. Fire breaks out on the ninth floor of the 14 storey block of flats
  2. Blaze spreads to upper floors of recently refurbished flats
  3. Falling debris spread the blaze down to floors below original fire

Readers' comments (1)

  • Having inspected Marie Curie House the sister block to Lakanal House there are numerous defects in the fireproofing that was caused by removal of the original fire protection to accomodate a new heating system.

    What is interesting is how the fire spead to the rear of the property, up wind passing over the fire escape lobby. The fire spread through the corridor ceiling void.

    The fire protection was missing to the flats door frames in the corridor ceiling void, the little fire protection that was installed was defectively installed to the stairs that penetrate corridors and unsupported in the corridors, the fire barriers in the corridor ceiling were smashed due to the installation of wiring to the security doors, the security doors were not fire doors and had weld mesh creating a wind tunnel.

    This is just part of the numerous defects in Marie Curie House - Southwark are unlucky that it was a fire in their borough that highlights defects in tower blocks throught the country. Having reported on tower blocks over twenty years these defects are not isolated.

    There are numerous defects in fire protection to newbuild properties which are also missed by NHBC and Building control. We need a whole rethink as to design and installation of fire protection.

    Arnold Tarling BSc FRICS MCIArb

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.