The tragic fire at the Grenfell Tower block in London has shifted the focus to UK building regulations and the use of outside cladding. While there is still a major investigation ongoing into the cause of the fire it was the speed with which it ripped through floor after floor of the building which shocked many seasoned firefighters. Within minutes the fire was moving higher and higher up the building with many describing the building as “akin to a chimney”. So far the death toll has reached 30 but there is speculation it could at least double and some residents may never be identified.
Focus on outside cladding
There is speculation and counter speculation regarding a recent £10 million makeover of the Grenfell Tower block which involved an outside cladding material being added to the exterior. There are ongoing investigations into the type of cladding used but at this moment in time it is too soon to cast any aspersions or blame. What we do know is that the cladding supplied was £2 a square metre cheaper than the equivalent fire resistant type. However, the building was recently passed by the regulators and there is no suggestion that any laws were broken.
What is becoming apparent is the difference between UK regulations and those in Germany and the US with regards to the use of outside cladding on multi-storey buildings. When East and West Germany were merged together this brought with it an array of multi-storey residential towers from East Germany. Very quickly the German authorities passed a law which banned the use of plastic filled cladding on tower blocks more than 22 m in height. This ban has been in force since the 1980s when there was a revamp of the German fire safety regulations with regards to residential blocks.
The situation is even tighter in the US with US building codes restricting the use of metal composite panels without flame retardant on buildings more than 15 m in height. Again, in similar fashion to Germany, these regulations were brought in to improve fire safety in tower blocks.
Despite long-term lobbying by the Fire Protection Association there has been no change to UK regulations regarding the use of fire retardant material in cladding on the exterior of schools and tower blocks. As we mentioned above, while there is much speculation and rumour, what we know is that the cladding used did not break any UK regulations and was therefore deemed lawful. Quite why UK regulations seem to be at odds with Germany and the US is unclear.
Over the follow weeks and months we will see a detailed investigation into the fire, how it started and perhaps more importantly how it engulfed so many floors of the building in an extremely short space of time. The fact that the tower block recently undertook a multi-million pound makeover makes the situation even more difficult to understand. We can only hope that lessons are learned from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the thousands of people living in similar properties up and down the country are safe in their homes.