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Managing Construction: The Grenfell Tower Fire Analysis Term Paper

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Updated: Feb 10th, 2022

Introduction

The Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017, exposed a number of issues in emergency response, governance, and safety regulations in the construction industry. The fire occurred in 2017, a time when the emergency response was expected to be exemplary due to the terrorist threats issued in London. The Grenfell Tower led to a total of 72 deaths (Spinardi and Law, 2019, p.2), even though there were speculations that this figure was altered due to the media clampdown on the anomalies surrounding the casualty reports.

Nadij (2019, p.1) reported that more than 70 people were injured while 223 others managed to escape the building. The fire exposed lack of preparations on part of lawmakers in managing the flames and mitigating the risks, as well as the negligence in implementing construction laws. This term paper explored available literature related to failures in building construction, design, and maintenance that, if done appropriately, the Grenfell Tower fire could have been avoided.

Organisations Responsible for 2015-16 Refurbishment

Many organisations prefer refurbishing old buildings to demolitions for a variety of reasons, including costs and improving the building aesthetics. As part of an old building in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), the Grenfell Tower needed regular maintenance, one of which was to add external cladding. The Grenfell Tower formed one part of the Lancaster West Estate envisioned in the 1960s and completed in the 1970s (MacLeod, 2018, p.467).

In 1996, the state authorities sub-contracted the management of social housing, including the Grenfell Towers, to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) (Nadij, 2019, p.2). Additionally, Nadij (2019, p.2) indicated that KCTMO was responsible for regular maintenance of the building, including health and safety regulations, which could have been invaluable in saving lives on the night of the incident. Therefore, failure to undertake their duties contributed to the fire disasters.

The RBKC and the KCTMO advertised tenders for qualified contractors to refurbish the tower. According to MacLeod (2018, p.468), Leadbitter initially got the bid to refurbish and renovate the Grenfell Tower, which was estimated at £11.28 million. However, the quotation provided by Leadbitter exceeded the proposed budget of £10 million, a condition that forced KCTMO to re-advertise the renovation tender. As a result, Rydon won the contract quoted at £8.7 million, which was £1.3 million less than the proposed budget (Hills, 2017, para.5). According to Hills (2017, para.5), the scope of work for the two contractors, Leadbitter and Rydon, appeared similar because they were to replace the windows, add external thermal cladding, and install a new heating system.

However, Rydon was able to provide these services for £2.5 million less than the figure quoted by Leadbitter. Additionally, ITV (2017, para.6) reported that Rydon subcontracted the external cladding part to Harley Facades Ltd. The differences between the value quoted by Rydon and Leadbitter raised the questions as to how the former was able to achieve the same project scope for nearly £2.6 million less.

External cladding is one of the interesting parts of the Grenfell Tower renovation project. MacLeod (2018, p.469) stated that RBKC was able to save nearly £300,000 when it opted for a cheaper aluminium cladding provided by Rydon. The justification for cladding, as indicated by Bowie (2017, p.3), was to improve the appearance of the concrete-block walls and increase energy efficiency. However, there are concerns that the addition of cladding compromised the long term quality and safety of the materials used during construction, primarily because the contractors used cheap combustible aluminium cladding materials.

Evident Failures

Design, Procurement, and/or Execution of the Refurbishment Works

It is possible that the materials used during the refurbishment program necessitated the fire outbreak. According to Cowlard et al. (2013, p.175), the design of the Grenfell Tower and the materials used acted as a catalyst that led to the rapid spread of fire from the fourth floor to the top within two hours. Further research analysis from Cowlard et al. (2013, p.170) revealed that earthquakes and fires are the common causes of tall building failures.

However, the study noted that tall buildings in countries that adhere to the fundamental design rules rarely result in any significant damage. Another article by Bannister (2015, section 2) revealed that poor designs in skyscrapers facilitate the rapid spread of fire. For instance, the 2010 Shanghai fires that led to 58 deaths occurred because a mistake was highly fuelled by poor building designs and slow response rate. The building that caught fire had polyurethane foam insulation, which is highly combustible (Bannister, 2015, section 2). Therefore, the flames rapidly spread using the external facade to the rest of the building, signifying design failure during construction that could have been championed for fire safety.

The Grenfell Tower fires spread similarly to that of Shanghai fires. According to Mohamed et al. (2019, p.2), the fire that started on the fourth floor when a faulty refrigerator ignited was able to spread to the external skin of the building through open windows. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry (2018, p.8-5) reported that the windows installed during the refurbishment program were smaller, which created a gap around the original window’s frame design.

As a result, the contractors used a weatherproof seal called ethylene propylene diene monomer to fill the gaping space. Additionally, Maguire and Woodcock (2018, p.4) revealed that the windows were made with highly combustible polyester powder named (PMMA-polymethyl methacrylate), which acted as the aluminium coating. Therefore, the combination of flammable materials and gaps existing between the windows increased the rate at which fires spread around the building.

Most buildings should be designed to stop the spread of fire from the starting point, which helps the firefighters contain the building and help the occupants. This design is the reason why people are usually advised to “stay-put” in their rooms during fires, as was the case in the Grenfell Tower incident. Maguire and Woodcock’s (2018, p.4) study noted that the original cladding of the tower used precast ceramic panels to window high and single-glazed aluminium glazed windows.

Therefore, the materials used during the construction of the building in the 1970s were fire resistors but with poor thermal insulation. As a result, the upgrading of the tower focused on using a cladding with better thermal insulation, and they used the Reynobond Celotex RS5000 (Maguire and Woodcock, 2018, p.4). The separation created a gap between cladding and insulation.

On the other hand, the contractors used aluminium composite material (ACM) that is made of two panels of aluminium on either side bonded by an insulating material like polyethylene. According to Maguire and Woodcock (2018, p.5), the outer parts of the ACM during fires are colder than the walls. Consequently, the molten plastic enables the production of AL4C3 that creates a space that brings more air and propels the fire upwards. Also, Hoskins (2018, p.1) argued that replacing the asbestos cement with the new flammable cladding was the cause of the fire. The design used during the renovation that left gaps and the use of plastic foam cladding panels created a favourable condition for the external fires to occur and spread quickly.

However, few studies indicate that cladding has insignificant effects on the building’s fire resistance. Munjiza, Batinić, and Mihanović (2017, p.2) argued that the type of cladding used in the Grenfell Tower is widely used in the construction industry, signifying that contractors view it as safe. Nonetheless, Munjiza et al. (2017, p.2) noted that the cladding’s organic components produced flammable gas because of the heat, which penetrated through the 5cm cavity canvassing the whole building. As a result, this combustible gas combined with air created the flammable mixture, which, once ignited, led to the fires around the building in a matter of seconds (Munjiza et al., 2017, p.2).

These findings indicated that the cladding did not contravene design standards, but it significantly increased the spread of fires because it acted as an ignition mechanism (Guillaume et al., 2019, p.25). Therefore, the KCTMO failed in conducting experiments that would have revealed the presence of fire trigger mechanisms in the cladding and corrected it during the renovations.

Smoke is the leading cause of causalities compared to heat during a fire. Smoke is toxic, and it traps people in buildings during fire due to poor visibility. There were reports of heavy smoke in the stairwells and the lobby, which McKenna et al. (2019, p.115) gauged to be 15 times more toxic than mineral wool. Typically, the staircases and halls should also be designed to be smoke-free, which would make the evacuation process effective (Fu, 2017, para.4).

According to Cowlard et al. (2013, p.173), the process of ensuring smoke-free stairwells is achieved by using pressurization systems. Scientists began the experiments to develop the stair pressurization systems in the 1960s. The working principle of pressurization is that there is pressure range consisting of upper and lower bound, which is achieved by building designs to ensure smoke-free areas. When fires occur, the air is heated, causing pressure differences created by thermal expansion and stack action (Tamura, 1983, p.347).

The stack action causes the pressure difference in the fire compartment in comparison to other adjacent spaces because the air in the fire compartment increases in pressure and volume proportional to the absolute temperature. Therefore, the upper bound in the pressurization system is designed to ensure that occupants easily open the doors leading to stairwells, which reduces rescue time. Conversely, the lower bound pressure is designed to maintain airflow in the stairs and the surroundings (Tamura, 1983, p.348). Based on the reports from the survivors, it appears that the pressurization systems were missing in the Grenfell Towers because they reported heavy smoke in the stairwells.

The Grenfell Tower fire exposed possible neglect and breach of building regulations. A study by Booth et al. (2018) indicated that the staircases had exposed gas pipes and duct services. Further analysis by Grenfell Tower Inquiry (2018, p.8-9) revealed that the doors leading to the stairs were FD30, which indicated a violation of building regulations that required doors to be FD60. The FD30 minutes are designed to offer at least 30 minutes of protection against fires, whereas FD60 protects for 60 minutes. It also raised the alarm as to why the doors had not been repaired since the 1970s.

Other tests conducted by Pitcher (2018) concluded that the FD30 doors failed to pass the recommended 30 minutes threshold. As a result, the entries heavily contributed to the increased smoke in the escape routes, which could have protected the residents. Fire doors are vital in reducing or preventing smoke and flames from spreading in common areas and staircases.

Tenant Management Organisation

The building management failed in conducting regular maintenance on the building, which could have rectified these mistakes, and this failure led to the deaths of many people. The KCTMO managed the Grenfell Tower building, but the organisation did very little to honour the complaints made by the tenants (Ramage, 2019, p.10). First, the construction guidelines in the U.K. mandates owners to include fire safety design requirements such as evacuation routes, compartmentation, and structural fire design (Ramage, 2019, p.8). Evacuation routes should be designed in a way that allows the residents to escape as quickly as possible, all while being sheltered from smoke and flames.

Lack of fire safety escape routes in the Grenfell Tower was a constant worry for most residents. According to Ramage (2019, p.17), the Grenfell residents committee wrote to the management over this issue and also wrote a blog in November 2016, expressing their dissatisfaction with the fire safety measures. Additionally, Power (2017, p.2) noted that the Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) was listed as the tenant management organisation, but the council wholly owned it. Lack of a tenant-led TMO meant that their issues were not addressed because the organisation was not there to listen to their concerns. These issues raised by the tenants reflect poorly on management’s lack of accountability.

The Grenfell Tower management, owners, and contractors who worked in the building failed in achieving a sustainable future during the renovations. A sustainable future, as defined by Akadiri, Chinyio, and Olomolaiye (2012, p.131), encompass different features such as improved use of materials, energy-saving, long term safety of occupants, and costs. However, the management of Grenfell Tower focused on cost efficiency and ignored other sustainable design principles for buildings.

The building design disregarded the human adaptation principle that is essential in ensuring the comfort and safety of the tenants. Detailed accounts from the survivors of the accident and expertise evidence noted that the contractors, as well as the owners, paid for cheap services, which were not conducive for the occupants.

Regulatory Regime Including but Not Limited to Building Control

The local authorities also failed in their duty to ensure safe living conditions for Grenfell residents. Ramage (2019, p.9) noted that only one central fire stairwell was available for 600 people to use or escape the fire in the building. Additionally, the building lacked water sprinklers and an adequate supply of water, essential for preventing the spreading of fires. The annual fire risk assessments conducted by the local authorities could have instructed the management to add new evacuation routes for the occupants of the building.

Additionally, the fire brigade was not provided with tall ladders or water hose pipes that could go beyond the twelfth floor, which further deterred rescue services (Ramage, 2019, p.11). Failure by the management played a significant role in delaying the rescue and evacuation protocol.

The government, local authorities, London Fire Brigade, as well as the building management also failed in learning from past fire disasters. For instance, in 2012, the United States banned the use of various cladding materials in buildings reaching higher than 40 feet (Keane, 2017, para.2). Reynobond cladding used in Grenfell Tower was part of the substances banned by the United States because of the polyurethane core (Knapton and Dixon, 2017, para.15).

Additionally, the stakeholders failed to learn from Lakanal House fire in 2009, which indicated that the post-flashover compartment fires and fires that emerge from compartment openings cause external fire spread and secondary ignition in other compartments (Abecassis Empis, 2010, p.14). The façade cladding ignition leads to a rapid multi-storey fire spread, as it was witnessed in Grenfell Tower.

The residents of the tower were advised by the fire brigade and officials to stay put in their flats (Preston, 2018, p.32). The fire brigade did not inform the residents “to get out and stay out” rather than “stay put,” which led to increased casualties. In a similar way, the officials during the Lakanal fire misadvised the residents leading to a higher number of deaths, had they been given the right advice (Johnson, 2019, para.2). This mix of negligence and misinformation during the incident contributed to a high death toll on the night of the accident.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Safe buildings in terms of evacuation are designed to allow all occupants to reach outside of the buildings within the shortest time possible. However, most of the modern high-rise buildings are designed with a limited number of vertical escape routes, which makes evacuation difficult, as experienced in Grenfell Tower. One of the fails identified in this paper is the lack of a safe zone or the wide enough escape routes. There was only one central stairwell to cater for all the occupants, and it was filled with smoke during the fire.

The design in the Grenfell Tower did not include compartmentalization or smoke pressurization systems. The poor design facilitated the rapid spread of fire from the apartment on the fourth floor, spreading vertically and horizontally to other parts of the building. Lack of smoke pressurization reduced the visibility on the stairs and the lobby because smoke penetrated these spaces. Additionally, the newly fitted windows during the refurbishment created gaps and were built using flammable materials.

The design failures mixed with negligence created the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. The developers were encouraged to do the absolute minimum to meet the construction regulation standards during the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower by the local authorities and management because of monetary pressure. The authorities had failed to design stricter regulations despite learning from past fire incidents accelerated by cladding materials.

The U.S. had banned the use of the cladding contractors used on the tower during renovations. The management also failed to heed to the tenants’ calls to install fire sprinklers and other safety mechanisms. The negligence heavily contributed to the disaster and the high number of deaths.

There are several recommendations to make based on the literature analyzed in this paper. The first recommendation is that building management officials and local fire safety inspectors should take their duties seriously. The high number of casualties could have been avoided had the safety inspectors compelled the building management to comply with current building regulations. Also, the management should be held liable for the fire because they failed to implement safety standards despite warnings from tenants. The contractors should learn the principles of sustainable constructions that call for human safety, environment protection, and cost utilization. House design standards should not compromise human safety over costs.

The government should also ban certain combustible construction materials and conduct regular tests on old or new buildings to determine if they complied with construction standards. The roles of the stakeholders should be clearly defined to avoid miscommunication experienced when handling evacuation procedures. Every officer who fails to conduct their assigned duties, such as ensuring fire safety tools are functional, should be held partly responsible in case of fire accidents.

Reference List

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