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Grenfell Tower: Architect’s Role Essay

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Updated: Oct 27th, 2020

Introduction

The architects of the Grenfell Tower applied the Brutalist style that saw the completion of the structure in 1974. The Brutalist approach to the construction of the Grenfell Tower made it acquire not only industrial and prefabricated construction tactics but also a modernist aesthetic touch. Over the years, dwellers of the residential high-rise complained about faulty smoke detectors and sprinklers that threatened their safety. In response to the need for refurbishment, Dening and Elmer reveal that Studio E Architects installed the Reynobond PE cladding in the tower’s PIR insulation boards in 2016.[1]

The fire tragedy experienced by residents of the Grenfell Tower evoked concerns from interested parties, owing to the role of the architect and other parties in the devastating event. In this light, it is crucial to examine the extent to which the role of the architect failed to the extent of leading to the Grenfell Tower tragedy. This paper argues that although the witnessed tragedy may be associated with some form of laxity on oversight agencies, Studio E Architects significantly failed in its mandate of providing the required architectural standards. Consequently, there is a need to examine the possible actions that the architectural firm could have taken to mitigate the incident.

The Role of the Architect in Grenfell Tower’s Fire Tragedy

Studio E Architects assumed the role of the Principal Designer responsible for the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower in 2016. Nonetheless, according to Dean, the architectural approach during the cladding renovation works are perceived to have neglected the required safety precautions, thus leading to a devastating fire that set the Grenfell Tower ablaze, a situation that resulted in the death of at least 71 people.[2] The reconstruction contract required such architects to fit the high-rise building with the external cladding. The process required them to install at least three layers of cladding on the external parts of the building. According to Moffat, the first layer constituted a Celotex RS5000 thermal insulation with a 150mm thickness affixed to the precast panels, as well as the reinforced concrete frame.[3]

The presence of polyisocyanurate (PIR) in the Celotex makes it classified as a material with a fire performance rating of Class 0, the highest achievable degree as per the laid-down building regulations. Nonetheless, as Kuffner reveals, the rating implies that the material used in the first layer of cladding supports any significant surface spread but not resistance to fire.[4] For this reason, Celotex would easily burn when exposed to a fire of adequate heat and intensity. Therefore, in line with Carpenter’s views, the failure of the contracted architects to consider this aspect exposed tenants of the Grenfell Tower to a considerable safety threat.[5]

According to Ahmed and Kamau, the cladding of the first layer was also required to consider the use of fire-resistant materials to foster the safety and sustainability of energy in the residential high-rise.[6] As such, instead of considering the use of fire-resistant materials such as Celotex FR5000, the Principal Designer opted for Celotex RS5000, which is considerably combustible when exposed to certain conditions.

Important to note, the Sustainability and Energy Statement published in 2012 required architects to use Celotex FR5000 in the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower. In this light, Studio E Architects failed to observe the planning application for the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower, thereby undermining its safety.

The second layer consisted of a 50mm cavity that separated the thermal insulation stratum and the cladding panels to give room for moisture build-up and evaporation. The third level of cladding installed on the outer parts of the tower included a BCM glass-reinforced concrete (GRC) and a Reynobond aluminum amalgamated substance (ACM). The firm responsible for the architectural work used such materials to foster the rigidity and strength of the building’s panel. Nonetheless, as Langmore reveals, it failed to consider the aspect of fire safety when using the materials by using the Reynobond PE cladding, which is cheaper compared to FR Reynobond.[7]

The latter material is much safer, owing to its fire-retardant component. On the other hand, the polyethylene core present in the Reynobond PE material supports slow-burning even after its removal from a flame. As such, the decision to acquire cheaper materials was to ensure that the contracted companies maximized profits at the expense of the tenants’ safety and hence a significant mistake committed by the architects.

The hired architects also designed the cladding poorly by allowing a space that could support the spread of smoke and flames. Notably, according to Blair, in addition to the 50mm gap between the insulation and rain-screen panels, a significantly larger void existed between the cladding and the ten concrete-rotated pillars of the Grenfell Tower.[8] Such momentous voids between the cladding and pillars made it possible for smoke and fire to move from one floor to another, thereby exposing the entire building to poor fire safety. Additionally, the voids facilitated a complete bypass of the horizontal fire stops required to be present on the floor of the residential high-rise. Thus, by making the horizontal fire stops useless, such empty spaces undermined the fire safety of the building to a considerable degree.

The installation of the classing also interfered with the position of windows outwards from the original position of the tower block. The new location created room for smoke to pass between the concrete wall and the window frame. As Howieson asserts, the architectural design allowed the fire to get inside the rain-screen easily after bypassing the window, thus spreading rapidly by burning combustible products on its way up the building.[9] Furthermore, the fire could evade the installed cavity inferno barriers. Consequently, it could spread not only upwards but also across the building from window to window.

The Role of Oversight Authorities

In addition to the architects’ faults during the renovation of the Grenfell Tower, the failure of proper inspection works by the appropriate authorities could also have contributed to the fire tragedy. Authorities such as Kensington and Chelsea council should have played a considerable role in ensuring that the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower observed the required construction and safety standards. Notably, the Council issued a Completion Certificate for the renovation works undertaken at the Grenfell Tower in 2016.

By so doing, it approved that the refurbishment works observed the standards set by local authorities. Such a certification implied that the building was safe for residential purposes. Nonetheless, according to Power, after the tragic incident, the Council describes the status of the Grenfell Tower renovation and project as “Completed Not Approved.” [10] In this respect, the failure of the appropriate authorities to comprehensively inspect the building and safety standards also contributed to the fire incident to a considerable extent.

What Architects Could Have Done to Prevent the Fire Tragedy

Undoubtedly, architects contributed considerably to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. However, they could have done more to avoid the devastating incident. Importantly, the need to observe laws and regulations proves one of the major factors that the contracted architects needed to take into account. As such, as Ford observes, the Principal Designer of the Grenfell Tower should have upheld the consideration of safety requirements associated with fire suppression products.[11] In this light, the hired architects could have observed the necessary provisions for both life safety and property protection.

By conforming to legal frameworks such as the United Kingdom’s Building Act of 1984, Grenfell Tower’s architects could have mitigated the adversity of the fire tragedy. The architectural firm should also have demanded the provision of documents associated with building protection and life safety. Consequently, according to Al-Kodmany, the agency could have avoided the use of flammable materials in the refurbishment of the residential high-rise.[12] The approach could have enhanced the self-evaluation aspect of the project, owing to the poor inspection carried out by local authorities.

Conclusion

The Grenfell Tower fire incident raises considerable questions regarding the role of architects in steering projects that observe life safety and building protection. Notably, the poor design and the observed use of flammable materials for cladding contributed greatly to the fire tragedy. The failure of local authorities to comprehensively inspect the refurbishment works also played a role in the devastating incident. As such, there is a need for architects to observe the required building laws and regulations to the latter while at the same time conducting self-evaluation to guarantee safety.

Bibliography

Ahmed, Ash, and John Kamau. Sustainable Construction Using Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Aircrete) Blocks. New York: Crimson Publishers, 2017.

Al-Kodmany, Kheir. “The Sustainability of Tall Building Developments: A Conceptual Framework.” Buildings 8, no. 7 (2018): 1-31.

Blair, Thomas. The Poverty of Planning: Crisis in the Urban Environment. UK: Editions Blair, 2017.

Carpenter, Jamie. “The Key Planning Issues Raised by the Grenfell Tower Blaze.” Planning, no, 2055 (2017): 11-12.

Dean, Erin. “Processing Tragedy: The Aftermath of Grenfell Tower.” Nursing Standard 31, no. 44 (2017): 12-13.

Dining, Geraldine, and Simon Elmer. “ASH. 2018. Web.

Ford, Jason. “Blaze Puts Utilities in the Spotlight: Fire Detection and Utilities to be Revisited after Grenfell Tower Block Tragedy.” Engineer 297, no. 7889 (2017): 8-8.

Howieson, Stirling. “The Great Scottish Housing Disaster: The Impacts of Feudalism, Modernism, Energy Efficiency, and Vapour Barriers on Indoor Air Quality, Asthma, and Public Health.” Sustainability 10, no. 18 (2017): 1-19.

Kuffner, William. “Protecting the Exterior: Following the Tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, Where Flames Consumed the Building’s Exterior, Could the Same Happen Here?” Canadian Consulting Engineer, 58, no. 5 (2017): 34-36.

Langmore, Katie. “After The Grenfell Tower Tragedy – Lessons for Insurers.” Journal of the Australian & New Zealand Institute of Insurance & Finance 40, no. 3 (2017): 7-10.

Moffat, Polly. “The Grenfell Tower Fire: A Devastated Community Demands Answers.” Journal of Health Visiting 5, no. 10 (2017): 486-488.

Power, Anne. “British Politics and Policy at LSE. Web.

  1. Geraldine Dening, and Simon Elmer, “The Truth about Grenfell Tower: A Report by Architects for Social Housing,” ASH. 2018. Web.
  2. Erin Dean, “Processing Tragedy: The Aftermath of Grenfell Tower,” Nursing Standard 31, no. 44, (2017): 12.
  3. Polly Moffat, “The Grenfell Tower Fire: A Devastated Community Demands Answers,” Journal of Health Visiting 5, no. 10 (2017): 487.
  4. William Kuffner, “Protecting the Exterior: Following the Tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, Where Flames Consumed the Building’s Exterior, Could the Same Happen Here?”, Canadian Consulting Engineer, 58, no. 5 (2017): 35.
  5. Jamie Carpenter, “The Key Planning Issues Raised by the Grenfell Tower Blaze,” Planning, no, 2055 (2017): 11.
  6. Ash Ahmed, and John Kamau, Sustainable Construction Using Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Aircrete) Blocks (New York: Crimson Publishers, 2017), 20.
  7. Katie Langmore, “After The Grenfell Tower Tragedy – Lessons for Insurers,” Journal of the Australian & New Zealand Institute of Insurance & Finance 40, no. 3 (2017): 8.
  8. Thomas Blair, The Poverty of Planning: Crisis in the Urban Environment (UK: Editions Blair, 2017), 13.
  9. Howieson, Stirling, “The Great Scottish Housing Disaster: The Impacts of Feudalism, Modernism, Energy Efficiency and Vapour Barriers on Indoor Air Quality, Asthma, and Public Health,” Sustainability 10, no. 18, (2017): 3.
  10. Anne Power, “How Tenant Management Organisations have Wrongly been Associated with Grenfell,” British Politics and Policy at LSE. 2018. Web.
  11. Jason Ford, “Blaze Puts Utilities in the Spotlight: Fire Detection and Utilities to be Revisited after Grenfell Tower Block Tragedy,” Engineer 297, no. 7889 (2017): 8.
  12. Kheir Al-Kodmany, “The Sustainability of Tall Building Developments: A Conceptual Framework,” Buildings 8, no. 7 (2018): 7.
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