Three months to the day after the worst fire in England for over half a century, ANN CZERNIK questions how such
dangerous materials were ever installed on Grenfell Tower
THE BLACKENED, twisted shell of Grenfell Tower looms darkly over north Kensington as a monumental tombstone marking the site of Britain’s largest open grave.
Following the fire, a range of organisations supporting and campaigning for the rights of private renters across London and Britain — Generation Rent, Acorn, Digs, the Radical Housing Network, Renters Power Project, Advice- 4Renters and Renters’ Rights — issued a statement: “The Grenfell fire has exposed gross failings on the part of governments and institutions and the urgent need for proper regulations to keep us safe,” they declared.
Last week, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid told MPs: “Across England there are 173 social-housing buildings that are over 18 metres tall and clad with some form of aluminium composite material. In July, the Building Research Establishment began a series of large-scale fire safety tests on ACM cladding systems — both the visible cladding and the internal insulation.
“The cladding systems that passed the test are in use on eight social housing towers. Systems that failed are in use on 165 tower blocks.”
The number of privately owned buildings similarly affected is unknown.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea claim that Grenfell Tower’s cladding design and construction obtained the appropriate consents because evidence of compliance was provided to the council’s building control.
There are only three routes to compliance for cladding systems. The first, BS8414, is a full wall test, where a section of the proposed design is constructed and set alight to assess if it complies with building regulations.
The second is a desk top study as to how a system which has not got BS8414 approval might behave, with conclusions based on earlier tests of similar materials, and the third is a report by a fire safety engineer.
If these documents exist, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will not release them to journalists.
The problem is that building control officers are often faced with desk-top studies and fire engineers’ reports that are reliant on test results which are now shown to be fundamentally flawed.
As building control inspectors have to defer to expert opinion, the decision is often out of their hands.
The government tests in the wake of Grenfell have shown that products were classed as non-combustible when in fact they are highly flammable dangerous materials in real-life fire conditions.
Reynobond PE — the cladding used at Grenfell — was certified as BS476 compliant by Warrington Fire Services, now part of the Exova Group. A company spokesperson said: “The test conducted in 1997 on those panels have not, and would not, be revoked. This is because those tests gave the results for the specimens submitted on that day and on those particular specimens and are accurate for that product tested to those particular tests.
“Test results are not revoked because they are reported results of the tests conducted and would not change in the light of results to other tests.”
In 2016, responsibility for fire safety in Britain transferred from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to the Home Office. The DCLG retains responsibility for building regulations, including fire safety standards, within construction. Construction works are signed off by either independent or council building control officers. But remit for fire prevention lies with the Home Office.
The Building Research Establishment (BRE) advises government on fire safety standards. The BRE group is the only facility for full wall-fire tests in Britain and it provides fire tests and certification for manufacturers and countries around the world, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
BRE Global set up a fire-testing facility in Dubai in 2016, months after a disastrous cladding fire at the prestigious Address Downtown Hotel. The fire there was one of a number of catastrophic high-rise fires in the Middle East, China and Australia. Investigations showed that the presence of combustible aluminium composite panels seemed to explain the rapid spread of exterior fires in some of the world’s most iconic and luxurious buildings.
Within the fire industry, the Dubai fires raised awareness and understanding of the dangers of plastics in cladding systems and BRE executives have lectured around the world and published widely on the dangers of these kind of fires.
The UAE introduced stringent regulations banning the use of ACM cladding in some circumstances. But Britain didn’t follow suit. BRE and the DCLG declined to comment on the advice given by BRE on the risk of cladding fires in high-rise buildings in Britain.
The Address fire investigation established that ACM panels will burn at temperatures below that of a fully developed fire. Aluminium within cladding systems was found to have melted within minutes, exposing the highly flammable polyethylene core. When the composite panels are attacked at the joints, or the panels facing falls away, the combustible core burns with severity. Over 30,000 buildings were found to be affected with the dangerous cladding in Dubai.
At Grenfell, a new material was used to insulate the space between the cladding and the concrete structure of the building. Ocelot RS5000 was the first insulation foam designed for use in tall buildings. It was launched just months before the Grenfell refurbishment began in a flurry of roadshows around Britain to demonstrate it’s fire resistant properties but, as subsequent tests have shown, RS5000 is highly combustible.
And it proudly carries BRE certification for use in a cladding system faced with an entirely non-combustible rain-screen panel. There is no record of RS5000 ever being approved for use with ACM panels, nor are there any restrictions on the sale of potentially lethal products used inappropriately.
Yet two evidently highly combustible products were used to clad a building housing hundreds of people because evidence was provided that it was safe to do so.
The combination of RS5000 and Reynobond ACM PE panels was a deadly chemistry which could — and should — have been apparent.
At Latimer Road, the consequences of that omission are thrust upon you when you turn a corner or look out over the west London landscape from a vantage point in distant boroughs. The physical presence of the now condemned Grenfell Tower is overpowering. As the sun sets, the facade mysteriously glows like an ember. In the dead of the night, the building is blacker than the night sky.
The tower’s crumbling existence confronts and challenges those who make the pilgrimage to what is now a corporate crime scene.
Outside London, many dismiss the scale of the impact of the events that night. But, if they do, they have not borne witness to a disaster which had been foretold.
Those of us who have, know that silent unseen wounds of mass trauma inflicted on victims, survivors, families and the surrounding communities will take decades to heal. For some, they never will and already it’s been reported that the numbers of attempted suicide in the borough has risen. Mental health services in the area are reliant on work of volunteers to support a community that has experienced levels of trauma normally only seen in war-torn countries.
The murky shadow cast by this tragedy is a dismal condemnation of successive governments’ erasure of the state’s protective and regulatory functions.
Today, a colder wind is blowing around the tower as autumn sets in. It’s three months since Britain came face to face with the stark reality of nearly two decades of policies designed to free institutions and corporations from public accountability.
What we are left with is dysfunction, chaos and confusion and the fearful suspicion that unchecked corruption has left us with buildings that are dangerously unfit for purpose.
The lie is obvious. The secret is who knew.
Three months after Grenfell, we are still no nearer to knowing the truth.