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Grenfell Tower fire | What now for regulations?

Grenfell Tower
  • Prime Minister announces full public inquiry
  • Checks on similar buildings
  • Concerns fire regulations aren’t keeping up with latest building materials

Prime Minister Theresa May has now confirmed a full public inquiry will take place into what caused the fatal blaze at Grenfell Tower on Wednesday.

Her announcement follows growing anger among the public, while a number of MPs including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had demanded an investigation into the causes of the fire and whether the tragedy could have been avoided.

Yesterday (Thursday) policing and fire minister Nick Hurd gave assurances that checks would be carried out on similar tower blocks which have been refurbished. However, both the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government said it was too early to give details on what level of detail those checks would involve.

London Councils, a city-wide body representing councils across the 32 boroughs, also said it would be reviewing its fire safety procedures and risk assessments in council-run tower blocks “in light of this tragic event”.

But the fire at Grenfell Tower has led some engineers to voice concerns over whether fire safety standards for building refurbishments are robust enough. Currently, fire safety for buildings in the UK is covered in Approved Document B of the Building Regulations, a wide-ranging text which has not been significantly overhauled since 2006, although there have been updates in 2010 and 2013.

The regulations cover escape routes in buildings, methods to stop fires spreading inside and outside, and access and facilities for the fire service.

At a meeting of MPs in Parliament yesterday, housing minister Alok Sharma said the department was almost ready to go out to consultation on fire regulations, however the scope of the consultation will be reviewed in the light of the tragedy.

An earlier London tower block blaze had prompted a recommendation to change the regulations. In 2009 a fire at Lakanal House, a tower block built in the 1950s, killed six people. An inquiry urged the government to make fire regulations in Approved Document B simpler and encouraged councils to consider retrofitting older buildings with sprinkler systems.

According to Manchester University deputy vice chancellor Colin Bailey, who has previously served as head of civil engineering at the university, the regulations are robust enough to prevent tragedies.

However, he added, in general, fire safety progress needs to be at the same rate as design progress and the materials now used. Although the cladding on Grenfell Tower conformed to regulations, many are now asking why the UK does not have the same regulations as other countries such as the US which restrict their use.

“Your issue of course is that you’re using different types of materials, you’re pushing the design limits in other areas, so on your structural aspects of it, your serviceability aspects of it, your sustainability aspects of it: you’re pushing all the design boundaries and usually fire seems to get a little bit left behind so we need to make sure that as we’re pushing the boundaries of using different types of materials, as we’re pushing the boundaries of our design, fire design needs to be included within that,” says Bailey.

The Times reported that a salesman for US-based Reynobond told it that the version of its cladding believed to have been used in Grenfell’s refurbishment, which has a polyethylene core, has been banned in America for use on buildings taller than 12.2m over fire safety concerns. A drawing of the facade cladding that was submitted as part of Grenfell Tower’s refurbishment planning application in 2014 can be viewed here.

Fire Protection Association technical director Jim Glockling agrees that the building regulations should keep up with modern materials used in construction.

“There is a need for the building regulations and its guidance to consider both the external envelope of the building and its resilience to fire ingress,” he says.

“Many insulating materials may be used in external thermal insulated cladding (ETIC) systems and their fire performance characteristics can range from being non-combustible, to very flammable – it is a matter of choice, and clearly some choices are better than others.”

Others have been quick to argue that fire safety regulations need updating. Specialist fire consultant Mosen managing director Fathi Tarada told New Civil Engineer yesterday that the UK is now behind Dubai in terms of fire safety, after a similar tower block fire in 2015 prompted an overhaul of regulations in the UAE.

“We’re now in the situation that the external cladding regulations are tighter in Dubai than in the UK and we need to learn from this as a matter of urgency,” said Tarada.

The Fire Sector Federation is calling for an overhaul to the Approved Document B regulations in a report to be published next Tuesday. It says the last review in 2006 was too long ago, and as a result buildings across the UK could be at risk, despite interim updates and other documents such as the Local Government Association published guidance on fire safety in purpose built blocks.

Although the group has been working on its report for a while, the timing of its publication is now particularly poignant.

Readers' comments (5)

  • Assuming cladding at Grenfell Tower complied with Building Regulations, in my view it does not absolve the client/specifier and contractor of installing something that was unsafe. If the results of the investigation in Dubai was well known, and the product was banned in Germany (what about common standards?), is it not incompetent (at best) to go ahead and install the cladding, and then use the excuse that it was "as per regulations". Sounds a bit like the "we did it as per British Standards excuse", which quite simply is not a valid defence. The whole industry should hold its head in shame. It is the nature of our industry that most have forgotten that matters other than price should be taken into account. And what about QA? Who checked the work daily/regularly. Our culture needs to change at all levels, not just the prestigious projects.

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  • I would like to say, in a slightly wider context, that I have had cause from time to time, and recently, to challenge colleagues concerning aspects of design that, they say, complies with regulations but which I consider to be questionable, to say the least.

    I feel that this indicates that many of us are becoming too ‘regulation driven’ and there are, too often, attempts to get away with the minimum necessary to comply with the ‘letter of the law’ without considering the wider implications and whether the regulations are being interpreted and implemented appropriately. In response to one of my challenges (in a structural context), the defence was that. “…The clients will go elsewhere if we start designing to higher standards than our competitors...” The more this behaviour endures, the higher will be the risk of failures.

    Engineers, and indeed all building professionals, need to be imaginative and open to the consideration of risk and be able to address it, regardless of regulations. The regulations should be seen as a minimum requirement and not a maximum that one must attain or something to be ‘got around’. In my view, we already have this responsibility and, if someone is found culpable in specifying a product that led to the tragedy on this lamentable scale, then they will rightly be held to account and deserve whatever the law finds appropriate.

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  • It is obvious by inspection that the new cladding/insulation system on Grenfell Tower did not comply with Building Regulations:
    "B4. (1) The external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, having regard to the height, use and position of the building".
    It is very clear from the speed of the external spread of the fire in this high-rise residential building that this regulation was either not properly understood, or was ignored, when the new cladding and insulation was specified, detailed and installed.
    As early as 1973, the Summerland fire taught us that cladding a building in materials that include flammable plastics is a really dangerous concept. Those involved with the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower do not appear to have considered the risks with the materials used.

    From reports on the night of the fire, it is also questionable whether the building complied with other parts of the regulations e.g.
    "B1. The building shall be designed and constructed so that there are appropriate provisions for the early warning of fire, and appropriate means of escape in case of fire from the building to a place of safety outside the building capable of being safely and effectively used at all material times".

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  • In all the professional commentary I've read so far there has been no mention of how useful the CDM regulations ought to have been in avoiding this disaster. A review of the design hazard logs and risk assessments should be carried out to see if this scenario was even contemplated.

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  • Reginald Beeton makes a good point. And I also agree with Simon that CDM ought to have shown up some sort of risk. I note that we now have the situation where products that apparently had BBA certificates are now failing tests. I have never been a fan of BBA certificates, as I know of at least one product that does not do what the certificte says, but that is beside the point. Either these products are safe or not, and I suspect some are safer than others, but the tests seem to have changed. Are we saying the previous testing regime was wrong? Which all rather go back to Mr Beeton's point. We are to regulation driven, and should be designing safe structures, making proper risk/what if assessments, and inspecting installations properly. I do hope some good comes out of this tradegy and we learn how to be proper Engineers again, not just regulation/standard compliers....

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