The Grenfell Tower tragedy: a disaster waiting to happen

(Natalie Oxford)

In 1974, a new high-rise public housing apartment building opened in West London.  Called Grenfell Tower, it was 24 stories tall and designed to house as many as 600 people in 120 apartments. Photographs of it taken before a renovation in 2015 show large windows on one side and smaller ones on the adjacent side. 

In 2014, as reported in this blog, the 63-story Address Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates went up in flames as aluminum-clad foam-plastic panels called architectural cladding or sandwich cladding on its exterior caught fire and quickly spread the conflagration to most of the outside of the building. Amazingly, no one died in that fire, due to a quick evacuation order by the authorities and the failure of the fire to spread to the interior of the hotel rooms.  

But this was only one of numerous exterior-cladding fires that have resulted from the use of flammable architectural materials on buildings that are too tall to be reached conveniently by fire ladders.

In 2015, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, the bureaucracy in charge of public housing in the Grenfell Tower district, decided to do a renovation, possibly to improve the structure's insulation and lower heating costs. New windows were installed, thermal insulation was added, and to cover these changes, sandwich cladding panels were installed to cover the four exterior side walls. 

Some, perhaps most, of the cladding was made by the U. S. firm Arconic, which sells various types with different kinds of plastic between the outer aluminum sheets. A cheaper type uses polyethylene plastic, but is not recommended for structures over 10 meters (33 feet) tall. A slightly more expensive type is fire-resistant, as was the thermal insulation used underneath the cladding.  But even fire-resistant plastic can burn under some conditions.

When constructed, the building had no sprinkler system, but the apartments were piped for gas cooking and gas lines were present throughout the building. Each apartment had fire detectors, but a residents' organization called the Grenfell Action Group has voiced complaints to authorities over the past few years about outmoded and non-functional fire extinguishers, flammable clutter in hallways, and other fire-safety issues, with little apparent response.

Residents of the Grenfell Towers, as were most other residents of London, had been instructed in case of fire to remain in place to be rescued by firefighters, rather than attempt an escape on their own.

In retrospect, the Grenfell Towers fire was a disaster waiting to happen: an aging, open-style building without a sprinkler system but full of gas lines, covered with apparently flammable sandwich cladding outside potentially flammable insulation material, crowded with up to 600 residents who had been told to stay in their apartments in case of a fire. And in the early morning hours of June 14, 2017, a fire broke out, reportedly in a kitchen on the fourth floor.

No sprinkler system or fire extinguisher succeeded in stopping the blaze before it ignited the exterior cladding, which in a matter of a few minutes spread the flames upward and eventually completely around the structure.  Many survivors got out by disobeying the orders to stay in place. As of June 20 there were 79 people dead or missing.  If this is confirmed, it will be the largest number of people to die in a single fire in London since the Blitz of World War II.

Fires that kill lots of people at once are not that uncommon, but usually they happen in crowded single-room venues such as nightclubs where fireworks or other sources of ignition catch flammable materials on fire. The spectacle of an entire high-rise building going up in flames because of flammable exterior cladding is something that is not supposed to happen in modern "fireproof" structures.  

But the invention of a cladding material that is light, inexpensive compared to concrete, solid steel, or aluminum, and reasonably durable has led to its use and abuse throughout the world. And as numerous cladding fires have shown, you can take the most fireproof building in the world and surround it with thin, flammable sheets exposed to a lot of air, and what you get is a giant Roman candle waiting to be set off. 

The Grenfell Towers fire may become a turning point in the politics and regulations of exterior cladding, similar to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 garment workers in 1911. Like many of the residents of the public-housing Grenfell Towers, most of those who died in the 1911 fire were poor immigrants, though they died on the job amid flammable clothing materials, not at home surrounded by flammable architectural panels. The Triangle fire had the good result of inspiring calls for improved fire-safety building codes and regulations, which if implemented can prevent tragedies like this.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, already in a politically weak position, has been jeered and attacked for what many saw as her inadequate response to the tragedy. She and other politicians could turn this situation to the benefit of their country by leading a thorough investigation into the causes of both the Grenfell Towers fire and other similar fires in which flammable exterior cladding has played a role. Then, they could take vigorous and definite action with regard to both existing and future architectural cladding that has any significant chance of short-circuiting fire safety by enabling the spread of a fire on an otherwise fireproof structure's exterior. 

It is ironic that after making people suffer for centuries the hazards of living in wooden structures that were chronically prone to burn down, nineteenth-century architects thought they had solved the problem of fire with concrete-and-steel structures, only to torch their triumphs in the last few decades by using what amounts to cheap window-dressing materials that burn like fireworks. If I were an architect, I would be afraid to show my face in London after the Grenfell Towers tragedy. 

The most basic ethical requirement of a profession is that the professionals look out for the interests of those average citizens affected by their professional activities, citizens who have no way of knowing what hazards they could be subject to and how to avoid them. I would be surprised if more than a few residents of Grenfell Towers knew anything about sandwich cladding, or the fact that under the right circumstances it would burn. Well, everyone knows now. And I can only hope that this knowledge gets applied to similar dangerous situations, and we do whatever it takes to keep another Grenfell Towers fire from happening anywhere, ever again.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Sources:  I referred to news reports about the Grenfell Towers fire carried by the Australian Broadcasting Company on June 17 at, the Canadian Global News at, and the Wikipedia articles "Grenfell Tower fire" and "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire."  My blog on the Address Hotel fire in Dubai appeared on Jan. 4, 2016. An updated death toll was added on June 20 from the ABC at   


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