Two years on from what the BBC referred to as ‘one of the UK’s worst modern disasters’, causing 72 deaths and a widespread cultural reaction, Aidan Bell, co-founder of sustainable building materials company Envirobuild, asks: ‘What have we learned from Grenfell?’
It was since discovered the building’s aluminium-polyethylene cladding was largely responsible for the disaster, having been installed onto Grenfell Tower in a recent renovation.
After the event, Dame Judith Hackitt was commissioned by the government to review building regulations. She expressed four core issues underpinning the flawed system; ignorance, indifference, uncertainty regarding responsibilities, and inconsistency in enforcement and guidance. In her review, Hackitt refers to these failures in fire regulation as a ‘cultural issue across the sector’, suggesting that more focus must be applied to building quality to ensure that residents are safe. Two years on, what has the construction industry changed to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again?
Although Grenfell’s cladding had been compliant with BS 8414 testing alongside certain insulation types, its particular combination of ACM and insulation had not been tested. After the fire, the Building Research Establishment undertook tests to gather an improved understanding around the differing combustibility extents for different combinations of Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) and insulation types.
The uncertainty and unawareness of these differing levels of flammability prior to the fire were largely blamed on unclarity in the technical guidance released by the Government. Clause 12.7 of Approved Document B2, had stated that any ‘insulation product’ or ‘filler material’ on buildings above 18 metres should be of ‘limited combustibility’. This clause very clearly directed attention to the combustibility of insulation, but did not directly mention outer cladding material. However, the Government later argued that this was to be assumed. They have more recently altered the wording of their advice to prevent any future miscommunication, as seen in clause 12.6.
In response to the Grenfell fire, alongside Hackitt’s review and a widespread public outcry, the government banned the use of combustible materials on the external walls and specified attachments of new high-rise buildings over 18 metres in December 2018. Materials used in the construction of tall residential buildings were limited to those with a fire rating of Class A1 (non-combustible) or A2 s1 d0 (very limited combustibility) under the harmonised European Standard EN13501.
This legislation has had significant consequences for construction, requiring an industry-wide transformation through eliminating the use of many traditional materials.
Contesting responsibility for change
The combustible material ban was not applied to properties where unsafe materials had already been fitted pre-2019, meaning that many existing structures remained unsafe.
To ensure security for residents in existing buildings, the government announced that they would allocate £400m to the re-cladding of public residential buildings with unsafe ACM over 18 metres, in July 2018. This was a year after the Grenfell fire, highlighting a slow process of change that left many residents in dangerous homes.
The responsibility to fix private residential properties was said by the Government to lie with the landlords, freeholders and developers; a responsibility that was largely avoided. Due to on-going legal conflict between freeholders and leaseholders, a lack of progress meant that many homes remained unsafe. Many homeowners even resorted to unfairly paying for fire wardens to reduce their stresses over safety until these legal wrangles were resolved.
Despite government rhetoric, very few buildings with combustible cladding have actually been replaced, and the problem has been largely ignored, causing further campaigns and legal battles even 27 months after Grenfell. The government eventually allocated £200m to the re-cladding of private sector residential buildings with unsafe ACM cladding. Although this is progressive, it is not enough to fix them all.
Construction’s responsibility going forward
Past fires, such as Dubai’s Marine Torch (2015 and 2017), and South London’s Lakanal House (2009) should have provided key lessons for construction, which could have prevented later events, such as Grenfell. Past events must inspire adapted practice to avoid them repeating. The construction industry must be diligent, attentive and proactive in taking responsibility for their actions regarding fire regulation.
In the construction industry, we have a responsibility to learn from past mistakes. Resident concerns must be taken seriously and acted upon quickly to ensure security.
What has the construction industry learnt?
Grenfell gave light to the disastrous potential of unclarified regulation and undefined responsibility, shaking the construction industry.
Two years later, responsibility for improving safety is still being contested. This is embarrassing for all those involved, especially given many residents are still living in unsafe conditions.
It is important to use past mistakes, events and findings to improve safety going forward. The foreshadowing of Grenfell in the Lakanal fire is the most damning of all the evidence of an industry asleep at the wheel.
Grenfell has demanded an enhanced focus towards occupant safety equal to the continued focus upon construction worker safety.
The combustible material ban passed in
December 2018 made progress, preventing the use of combustible materials on all
high-rise cladding and balcony designs. But the recommendations made within the
Hackitt report need to be implemented faster, with further expected legislation
still to come.