On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower - a 24-storey tower block in North Kensington, West London. The fire claimed 72 lives and caused injury to more than 70 others. But how was this allowed to happen? And what, if anything, has changed in the five years since the disaster?
The Deadliest Structural Fire In Almost 30 Years
Before we look at the factors that lead to the Grenfell fire, it's important to understand its scale. This provides context to the size of the oversights and shortcuts that resulted in the 2017 blaze.
The significance of the disaster cannot be understated. The incident was the deadliest structural fire in the UK since the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster in 1988.
The Direct Cause Of The Grenfell Fire
The fire was the result of an electrical fault with a refrigerator. The fridge/freezer model in question was investigated by The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It was concluded that the model met legal safety standards, and no product recall was issued.
Grenfell tenants had previously raised complaints regarding power surges. Tenants had been compensated for damages to appliances. However, the power surges continued. It is suspected that one of these power surges may have led to the fire. The cause of the surges remains unknown.
Fire Safety And Passive Fire Protection
However, the cause of the fire is not the most significant issue. Often electrical fires such as this can be contained and then put out. Buildings use fire-stopping systems to prevent the spread of a fire and create a safe exit route for residents.
Fire barriers are installed between roof and ceiling voids and under flooring to compartment structures and prevent the spread of flames and smoke. Fire curtains are also used to avoid the fire spreading through these voids and to compartment different areas of a building.
How Did The Fire At Grenfell Spread?
The real problem is how the fire was able to spread. Inside buildings, there are many safety measures to contain fires. However, it has been asserted that not all of these measures were correctly put in place. The cavity barriers designed to prevent fire from spreading between the façade and the building were reportedly too small (and, in some cases, installed incorrectly).
In the case of Grenfell, the most glaring problem came on the outside of the building. The fire spread to the other floors through the exterior of the building. The issue lies with the cladding that was on the outside of the tower block. Cladding is material placed on the outside of buildings to provide thermal insulation and protection from the weather. It can be made from a range of materials, including wood, metal, vinyl or composites.
Grenfell Tower had been refurbished with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. This cladding consists of two aluminium sheets bonded to a non-aluminium core. In Grenfell's case, the cladding's core was made of polyethylene. Polyethylene has low fire resistance making it unsuitable for inhabited buildings. In fact, the risks are so severe that the use of ACMs containing polyethylene or polyurethane is banned in many places.
The use of ACM cladding with combustible cores has a history of high rise fires predating the Grenfell disaster. They have been involved in fires in Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, the USA, and France. The use of these highly flammable cladding materials enabled the rapid spread of the fire.
Why Were ACMs Used?
With the apparent risks and history of dangerous fires associated with the low fire resistant aluminium-polyethylene cladding, why was it used? Choosing the dangerous polyethylene option over more fire-resistant alternatives appears to be a financial decision. The Arconic Reynobond product used on Grenfell Tower was available with multiple core material options. The polyethylene core which was used was cheaper than the more fire-resistant alternative.
Grenfell's Fire Evacuation Failures
The building's evacuation policy also contributed to the many lives lost during the fire. Grenfell Tower had a "Stay Put" fire safety policy. Residents were advised not to evacuate unless a fire directly affected their flat. This type of policy is typical of high-rise buildings in the UK.
The building was not designed to support a complete evacuation of all tenants. Grenfell Tower only had a single narrow staircase, and the fire alarm system did not alert residents. The policy was built on the assumption that the correct safety measures had been taken to prevent the spread of a fire. The building was not equipped to initiate an appropriate evacuation procedure once the fire began to spread throughout the building.
The Cladding Crisis
Investigations into Grenfell and other fires revealed a much bigger problem. The use of unsafe and inadequate materials was not isolated to Grenfell. The UK is in the midst of a cladding crisis. The crisis was predominantly confined to England. Scotland's building and planning regulations had already restricted the use of ACMs. Northern Ireland and Wales' laws were more similar to England's. However, there were no cases of ACMs being used in Northern Ireland and few cases in Wales. The story in England was very different. By 2021, England had found more than 460 examples of buildings over 18 meters tall using ACMs, like those used on Grenfell. By this time, 329 had removed the cladding, with 231 having completed remedial work.
The use of unsafe cladding extended to non-residential buildings too. For example, John Radcliffe hospitals' trauma unit was temporarily closed due to concerns regarding the use of fire safety risks from its cladding.
Although the use of ACM cladding on tall buildings was the primary concern, investigations highlighted many other issues too. Further investigations uncovered:
The use of other combustible cladding materials, including high-pressure laminate
Fire doors that don't comply with regulations
Lack of firebreaks in the cavities between walls and insulation
The Response To Grenfell
We are now five years on from the tragic events at Grenfell. But what has changed? Since the Grenfell fire, we have learnt of many more failings across the country regarding ACM cladding and much more. In the years since, the government has attempted to tackle the vast cladding crisis. Primarily, they tackled this through legislative change to prevent a similar incident. They have also produced some funding to help rectify dangerous building work, such as the many cases of ACM cladding discovered throughout the country.
As the scale of the crisis became apparent, the demand for remedial work rapidly increased. In most cases, this was the responsibility of the leaseholders. Some leaseholders could not recuperate costs as many of the builders and others responsible for the non-compliant work had gone out of business.
The government began providing funding to assist with the removal of ACM cladding and other remedial works.
The government announced £400 million in funding to remove ACM cladding from social housing in 2018. They followed, in 2019, with an announcement of £200 million to remove ACM from private sector high-rises. In 2020, a further £200 million in funding was pledged for similar remedial work for private tower blocks. And a £1 billion fund was announced for non-AMC cladding that did not comply with legislation.
The cladding funds were followed in 2021 by the Waking Watch Fund, which was to be used to supply buildings with the alarm systems required for full evacuations. Also, in 2021, the government announced a £3.5 billion cladding replacement fund alongside a 5-point plan. This focussed on removing unsafe cladding from buildings over 18 meters. The 5-point plan also established plans to provide loans to leaseholders of buildings between 11 and 18 meters tall.
In addition to funding, the government also began making legislative changes to prevent an incident like the Grenfell Tower fire from happening again.
Fire Safety Bill
One of the most significant legal changes following the Grenfell fire was the introduction of the Fire Safety Act 2021. The act made changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, affecting England and Wales.
The act outlines a series of new fire safety provisions, including:
The local fire services and those responsible for the building's fire safety must be provided information regarding the building's external walls.
Annual inspections of flat entrance doors and monthly inspections of lifts must be carried out by building managers or owners.
Local fire and rescue services must be informed of any faults with lifts.
Creating a public fire risk register.
Building Safety Bill
In addition to the Fire Safety Bill, the Building Safety Bill was also passed. The bill aims to prevent incidents like Grenfell by empowering residents to hold developers and builders to account. The bill also imposes stricter sanctions for those who put people at risk by failing to meet safety regulation standards.
Who Is Responsible For The Grenfell Fire
No one has been criminally charged for their involvement in the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire. However, the police investigation, called Operation Northleigh, is still ongoing.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea owned Grenfell Tower and was responsible for the Grenfell refurbishment. If prosecutors can prove that the decisions of senior managers led to the deaths at Grenfell, they could face charges of corporate manslaughter.
The companies involved in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment may also face charges. Around 700 companies were involved in the refurbishment, with relevant evidence for about 250 of them, according to Stuart Cundy of the Metropolitan Police.
Compensation For The Victims Of The Grenfell Fire
Each household affected by the Grenfell fire is covered by The Voluntary Interim Payment Scheme. This provides £12,000 to cover losses of home contents. A further £2,500 is available per child (up to two children) for a maximum of £17,000. There is also compensation in place for the families of those who died and for those that were injured and hospitalised.
Grenfell Tower Fire FAQ
Did Grenfell Tower have a sprinkler system?
Grenfell did not have a sprinkler system installed and was not legally required to have one.
Why were Grenfell Tenants not evacuated earlier?
Grenfell Tower, like many high-rises, used a “stay put” fire policy where tenants were advised not to evacuate unless a fire directly affected their flat. This policy was put in place on the assumption that the correct measures had been implemented to prevent a fire from spreading between flats.
When were the flammable cladding panels added to Grenfell Tower?
The ACM cladding on Grenfell was installed during the 2017 refurbishment of the building.
Is all cladding flammable?
Not all cladding poses a fire risk. Cladding can be made from fire-resistant and non-combustible materials.
Passive Fire Protection
At London Fire Solutions, we deliver market-leading passive fire protection. Our 'one-stop' service includes surveying, manufacturing, installation, certification and maintenance of fire doors, screens, fire alarm systems and other fire protection solutions.
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Learn More About Fire Safety
The tragedy of the Grenfell fire disaster highlighted the need for better fire safety. To learn more about fire safety and passive fire protection, read the other articles in our blog. "How Fire Spreads, and How To Stop It" is a great place to learn more about containing a fire. Or read "The Steps of a Fire Risk Assessment" to learn about identifying hazards before they cause a fire.