Reflections on the Grenfell Tower catastrophe

It is hard to write about Grenfell Tower. The unbelievably rapid spread of the conflagration and the fear and terror it inflicted upon those in the block (who had, let us not forget, been told to stay put) are almost too much to contemplate. Death by fire and smoke are unspeakably gruesome ways to be killed. Those who died and their friends and families deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and dignity, as do the fire fighters, the police and other workers and volunteers who tried to save lives and deal with the aftermath.

All I will say is that Mark Easton’s report for the BBC clearly showed the cladding to be on fire, with flames leaping up the block and goblets of fire dropping down. So this blog will try to focus on that fact and some of the wider issues in housing and construction arising from the catastrophe.

First, some history (bear with me, it is relevant).

The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed 80 percent of the capital’s buildings and led to the London Re-Building Act of 1667. In future all new buildings were to be made of brick or stone. The Act stated: “No man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building great or small, but of brick or stone…the building with Bricke is not onely more comely and durable but alsoe more safe against future perills of Fire”

Thatched roofs were banned and buildings were to be set apart from each other to prevent fire jumping across roads and alleyways. Samuel Pepys in his diary of 2nd September 1666 describes his attempts during the Great Fire to blow up buildings and create fire-breaks to prevent the fire spreading from roof to roof.

Brick and stone, to state the bleeding obvious, do not burn. But wooden windows and roof timbers do. So the London Building Acts of 1707 and 1709 banned timber cornices and required brick parapets to rise two and a half feet above the wooden garret floor, in order to stop fire jumping up the face of the brickwork and igniting the roof timbers. The Acts also required wooden windows to be recessed by four inches to stop fire leaping from one burning window to another across the brickwork. You can date London’s buildings by whether their windows are recessed or not.Bloomsbury-Walk-3-Gt-Orm-IMG_2689-600x450

So, over three hundred years ago London’s government put in place a fundamental requirement that walls should not burn and that fire should not be able to spread across walls from one room to another or from one house to another. Because of the trauma of its Great Fire, London led the way in these matters and other cities across the country slowly adopted the London standards of regulation.

Later Building Acts in London built upon these principles by requiring box sashes to be buried inside brickwork and legislating on means of escape and additional safety measures for higher buildings.

But the London Building Acts were largely replaced by national Building Regulations in 1986. The present requirements for fire safety are set out in Part B of the 2010 regulations (updated in 2013). In terms of external walls these state:

12.7 In a building with a storey 18m or more above ground level any insulation product, filler material (not including gaskets, sealants and similar) etc. used in the external wall construction should be of limited combustibility (see Appendix A).

You will struggle to find a definition of “limited combustibility” and it is clear that the way in which materials are tested for non-combustibility and limited combustibility vary. The fact that 100 percent of supposedly “safe” cladding panels to date have failed this test suggests that testing methods vary. There is quite a difference between testing an Aluminium Composite Panel head on, or sideways, in a laboratory and placing it in an actual fire where flames are leaping in every direction and being sucked at extremely high temperatures through internal cavities acting as chimneys. Surprisingly, desk-top testing is also allowed in some circumstances.

In a letter to Eric Pickles in March 2013 the Judge in the Lakanal House inquest made a number of recommendations, including a plea that the Building Regulations should be re-drafted. “..it is a most difficult document to use…” she said. Any re-write, she said,  should use words and a format “…which are intelligible to the wide range of people and bodies engaged in construction, maintenance and refurbishment”.

If you have ever tried to read Part B you will have to concur. Needless to say, Eric Pickles ignored the judge’s recommendations._80945386_025822819-1

It’s important to note that Lakanal House (1959) and Grenfell Tower (1974) were built under the London Building Acts, but had been refurbished using cladding that did not meet the previous standard in the London Building Acts of one-hour fire resistance.

Up until 1985 London had 28 independent District Surveyors who regulated its Building Acts. In a telling recent letter to The Telegraph a former District Surveyor, Terence Jenkins, explained his role and commented on the Grenfell disaster. “The old maxim in the service was: first, make sure it does not fall down; secondly, make sure it does not burn down; and thirdly, use your common sense for all other matters”. He went on, “The fire at Grenfell Tower would not have happened under the London Building Acts and bylaws. Proper fire breaks in the cladding would have been insisted on and, more importantly, enforced. Controlling fire-spread was the foundation of the 1667 Act for the Rebuilding of London and its basics were still in place when I stood down as district surveyor for Chelsea in 1983. No combustible materials would have been allowed on the outside of a building, no cavities in cladding allowed to create vertical fire or air pathways. Vertical and horizontal fire breaks were the foundation of the protection principles…Whenever politicians and accountants are in ultimate control of complex building matters, in place of experienced construction professionals who do not have to answer to them, we will see more disasters like this one.”

This is my key point. Three hundred years ago, London’s government decreed that the walls of buildings should not burn and that fire should be restricted from spreading across brick and stone walls. Somehow, we have moved to a position where walls are permitted to burn, either by design or by default, and where fire can spread across walls from one flat to another.

I thought that civilisation was supposed to move forwards, not backwards?

Of course, brick and stone walls will eventually succumb to fire if the combustible material within them is being destroyed. But the old London Building Acts required walls to withstand fire for one hour. The Grenfell cladding went up in flames in a matter of minutes and exposed the structure within. Wrapping town blocks in polyethylene is not sensible.

The definition of limited combustibility is confusing and the regulations refer to differing appendices and documents. If you add to this the variance in testing methods, the under-funding and fragmentation of building and planning control (I have heard that the Kensington Building Control officers were outsourced personnel), the lack of any over-arching project management for many refurbishment projects, and the shoddy workmanship that characterises much recent work in London then all the elements are put in place for a potential disaster.

But it is the Building Regulations that are the fundamental issue, in my view. If flats are sealed compartments that can contain a fire for 30 minutes, and if walls do not burn and do not allow fire to jump between windows then the current advice to stay put makes sense. Under these circumstances, trying to evacuate a block of perhaps 500 or more people could be extremely perilous and could do more harm than good. But if flats are not sealed compartments and if walls do burn then the advice to stay put is very likely to kill you.

The Building Regulations will need to be rewritten and re-issued as a matter of urgency. We need to re-discover and re-affirm the 300-year old common-sense maxim that walls should not burn and that fire should not be allowed to spread across walls. That seems fairly straightforward.  Of course, sprinklers, internal fire-doors, seals between flats, and effective means of escape must all come into the mix, and so do wild ideas like flame-proof chutes, emergency ladders, inflatable safety cushions for those who jump, even parachutes – anything that will make people feel safer in their homes. But the key objective is that fire should be contained within a flat for a reasonable period of time and should not be able to spread up and down the face of the building.

The Grenfell catastrophe has generated all kinds of theories about its causes and it is amazing how many experts have appeared who seem to know exactly who is responsible. The Public Inquiry will hopefully reach an objective conclusion on this, (although I have little doubt that years of stigmatisation and under-funding of social housing will be a significant factor), but bear two points in mind. First, at least 20 percent of the flats in Grenfell Tower and blocks like it will have been sold. Many of them, as well as some of the social housing flats, will have been sub-let or used for AirBnB and similar short-term stays (which is why an exact figure of deaths might never be arrived at). The population of Grenfell Tower was mixed. Secondly, the issues with the Building Regulations that I have described go back to 1985 – they cut across the timelines of Conservative and Labour governments. Making shallow party political points will not do. Nor will it do to say that this is an issue just for the social housing sector. Of course this is a watershed moment for social housing. The sector will need to take a hard look at itself and go back to basics; ditch the half-baked management theories and the back-slapping awards’ ceremonies and focus instead on keeping its tenants safe in high-quality, genuinely affordable homes, (and listening more carefully to their concerns at the same time).

But as time goes on I am certain that cladding and fire safety concerns will be uncovered in all sectors and all property types. Above all this will become an  urgent issue for legislators and the government . They will both need to take a hard look at their primary role – to keep us safe. This they have not done.

A warning from history

The news that Manchester–based Trafford Housing Trust has taken on £275m of re-financing, partly in order to fund a new partnership with London and Quadrant housing trust (L&Q), is an interesting development for the social housing sector.

L&Q operates in London and the south-east and has no track record of activity elsewhere. Yet under this 50/50 deal, it will invest £80m to build 2,000 homes across the north.

This trans-regional partnership reflects a growing entrepreneurial commercial spirit among housing associations but comes with dangers attached. Continue reading

AirBnb and housing supply

‘Disruption’ is a favoured buzzword for some folk in housing. They laud companies like Amazon and Uber and yearn for the emergence of a new player to disrupt the housing industry. Of course, disruption can be bad or good, or both. Amazon provides a cheap and efficient service but it has put many small bookshops and other retailers out of business and has been accused of providing poor working conditions for staff.

Airbnb is the latest company to disrupt the world of property. So far, it has mostly impacted upon the hotel and holiday-let sectors, but it is starting to have an effect upon the wider letting market. Continue reading

Housing, immigration & Brexit

Four years ago I was brave (or foolish) enough to write a blog for Inside Housing on immigration. It was the most read and commented-on blog I’ve ever published, with more than 10,000 views and 504 comments, many hostile.

Read any story on housing in the national or regional press and I can guarantee that the readers’ comments section will be dominated by views on immigration. Simply put, these people believe “no immigrants, no housing problem”. Housing and immigration are joined at the hip in the minds of millions of voters, although few in our sector seem willing to accept this or to engage in debate with those who make the anti-immigrant, anti-housing case. Continue reading