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After the Fire

In the wake of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in London, there has been lots of finger-pointing, but little verifiable information

Grenfell Fire John Gomez Shutterstock
Photo: John Gomez/Shutterstock.com
It was a horrific scene. On June 14, the 24-story Grenfell Tower in the Camden neighborhood of London caught fire. As first responders tried to pour water on the building, they could only watch helplessly as the flames swept dramatically up the outside of the building beyond the reach of their fire hoses and trapping residents on the upper floors. Simultaneously, fire spread throughout the inside of the building, blocking escape paths. The flames spread so rapidly that firefighters could barely breach the building to assist in the rescue.

It was the worst fire in Britain in more than 100 years and resulted in the deaths of 79 people, residents of the low-income housing project. The finger-pointing began immediately.

Residents documented years of complaints about the building. A 2016 refurbishment included installation of a metal composite material (MCM) panel cladding. Its role in the fire captured the attention of authorities, the public and the press. Of particular concern is whether the panels used a fire-retardant (FR) core, which is required in U.S. high-rise construction.

(This issue is a central point of debate in England. Some have argued the English Building Regulations don’t allow the material. Inspectors, though, tendered a Building Warrant indicating it met regulations. In fact, Prime Minister Teresa May was grilled on this exact point during questioning period in Parliament.)

During the refurbishment, contractors installed Reynobond PE panels by Arconic Architectural Products, Eastman, Ga. (PE stands for polyethylene and refers to the material of the core sandwiched between the aluminum skins.) A 24-story application such as this would not meet code in the U.S. since any building that is generally taller than the reach of fire truck ladders must use noncombustible materials or materials allowed for use where non-combustible construction is required. Reynobond FR is the equivalent product specified in these instances.

For the North American MCM industry in particular, and the metal component industry more broadly, the fire caused considerable concern. Many were quick to point out the difference in building codes that would have prevented the application of those panels in the U.S. and Canada, as well as many other countries. Wanting to get out ahead of negative public perception about MCM panels, Arconic announced it will no longer provide Reynobond PE in any high-rise application.

Other manufacturers and fabricators also stepped forward to make statements. Fairview Architectural North America, Bloomfield, Conn., announced it would stop distribution of Vitrabond PE for building façade use in North America (high rise or low rise), even though none of the company’s products were used on Grenfell. And NOW Specialties, a Carrollton, Texas-based fabricator, called on Arconic to stop production of Reynobond PE entirely, which it felt would increase momentum for the specification of Reynobond FR.

And the Metal Construction Association released a statement supporting the use of MCM panels and stressing the importance of meeting material tests and standards as well as building codes.

Knowns and Known Unknowns

These reactions are normal in the aftermath of highprofile events in the construction industry. Manufacturers, fabricators, designers and others react as much to the public perception of the event as to the facts. The reason is that the facts take a lot longer to come out. According to Andy Williams, director of codes and standards for MCA, “There has been an awful lot of speculation out there on everything from the cause of the fire to the products they used to whether the assembly was code compliant. There are lots of conflicting statements, and at this point no one really knows for sure.”

From media reports and other sources, it seems that the fire started with a refrigerator on the fourth floor then quickly spread. But there are many questions unanswered. “There was more going on than just the fire on the outside,” says Williams. “It appears there were a number of locations where the fire was taking hold. If it started in one unit, it quickly spread to other units. How did it spread from inside to outside? Through an open window, wall penetrations or a window breakthrough caused by the fire?”

Firefighters responded within six minutes of the fire alarm. By the time they got there, reportedly the flames were already spreading quickly, and preventing access to the building. The lack of fire containment is a major point of issue in the analysis of this event. In fact, there are conflicting reports on whether the building had a sprinkler system, which would not necessarily be a code violation in England. Was there an adequate interior fire containment system and was it operating correctly in all areas? There is so much we don’t know.

U.S. vs. England

Williams says, “I don’t think that should stop us from looking at what we do know and how construction differs in the United Sates … Based on current code, the International Building Code, a building such as Grenfell should not have been built with the reported exterior wall assembly unless that assembly showed conformance with the [National Fire Protection Association] (NFPA) 285 standard as well as other test standards required by code. We could not have built Grenfell in the U.S or Canada.

“In the U.S., we have and will continue to work hard to establish a set of requirements for construction that would avoid this type of situation.”

It’s not just the U.S. that has established these code requirements. After high-profile fires in the Middle East, several of those countries, including the United Arab Emirates, adopted more stringent fire codes for building materials.

In the wake of the Grenfell fire, English authorities began to check other, similar public housing projects as well as hospitals and universities in England to determine if they had the same material. Reports indicate that all of the buildings initially tested for fire safety had failed. Residents have been moved out, and cladding is being replaced on a number of those buildings.

England’s neighbor to the north, Scotland, also undertook an examination of its tower block housing and none of the more than 100 buildings included combustible cladding material. Why the difference? Scottish and English building regulations began diverging after the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. And driving one of the big changes in the Scottish cladding code was a similar, but far less devastating, fire in North Ayrshire in 1999. By 2005, Scotland Building Regulations had been changed to prevent the use of cladding material that did not “inhibit” the spread of fire.

As with the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the Grenfell Tower fire will likely drive changes to material testing and building codes for years to come. Those changes will likely also include the use of combustible cladding material. Until a complete forensic analysis is completed and evaluated—as with Andrew—the full impact of the fire will be more about the impact that it had on people’s lives.