- 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.