One year on from the Grenfell Tower fire, the government took an important step forward on public safety. It announced a ban on the use of combustible materials from new build and refurbished high-rise residential buildings as well as hospitals, residential care premises and student accommodation higher than 18 metres. The principle is a strong one: we should not use materials that can spread a fire in buildings where people will have difficulty evacuating quickly.
However, the question remains, does the ban go far enough?
The ban will not apply to existing buildings, high-rise hotels, high-rise offices, or to the vast majority of high- risk buildings, such as any hospitals, schools and care homes that are below 18 metres in height. Government funding has only been made available to replace Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding, when there are many other combustible cladding and insulation materials out there.
In this regard, the proposed ban would only cover a fraction of the high-risk buildings constructed with combustible materials. Grenfell United, a leading survivors’ group, has called for “all hospitals, schools and care homes to be included in the ban regardless of height” and for combustible materials to be removed from existing high-rise buildings as well. The Local Government Association said it would “continue to strongly urge the government to ban the use of any combustible materials – including cladding panels, insulation and other materials – on the external walls of high-rise and high-risk buildings”. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has joined these calls as well.
The government can move forward on this issue by extending the ban to cover all high-rise and high-risk buildings, including existing buildings. The buildings that people sleep in tonight should be every bit as safe as the buildings we will finish tomorrow or ten years from now. The hospitals where people recover from operations, and the schools where children learn, should be absolutely safe from the spread of fire.
Learning lessons: non-combustible works
A ban on combustible materials will work. We know from Grenfell and the Lakanal House fire the devastating effect combustible materials can have in spreading fires, but we can also learn from fires that thankfully were not tragedies. Since Grenfell, there have been two further fires, which show that requiring non-combustible materials can protect public safety. One happened at Grafton House in East London on 29 June 2018, and another this year at the Cottingley Towers in Leeds, on 30 September.
Grafton and Cottingley are similar to Grenfell in many ways – post-war high-rise concrete blocks where façades had been refurbished to provide extra insulation for residents’ flats. The fires that took place are similar too. In each case, a large fire developed inside a flat. The fires broke out of a window to the outside of the buildings several floors above ground.
What was different? A key difference was the materials the fire found when it broke out of the window. On Grenfell Tower, it found combustible ACM cladding and combustible plastic foam insulation. On a theoretical building similar in size to Grenfell Tower, those materials, according to Professor Angelo Lucchini from the Polytechnic University of Milan, added an energy load equivalent to approximately 32,000 litres of petrol to the building.
By contrast, at Grafton House and at Cottingley Towers, the fire found non-combustible stone wool insulation with a layer of render. At Grafton House, East End Homes confirmed that “the fire did not move beyond the flat where it started.” At Cottingley, West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Area Manager Chris Kirby observed, “the building did react in the way we would expect and the fire did not spread beyond the flat of origin”. Despite smoke damage, the flames did not spread up, down, or sideways across the building in either case, because they had nothing to burn. The compartmentalisation of the building held, and the fires resulted in no fatalities.
Grafton House and Cottingley Towers show how a ban on combustible materials on high-rise buildings would work to help keep people safe, but we should not stop there. Fires in high-rise flats happen, but so do fires in schools and hospitals. In 2017, according to the London Fire Brigade, there were 90 school fires in London alone. Just this September, a primary school in Dagenham burned down after the roof caught fire. The risk is there across the country. In December last year, a primary school in Dundee burned down after electric works ignited wiring insulation.
In 2016/2017, NHS official data shows that NHS trusts reported more than 1,400 fires. It will not be possible to eliminate the risk of fire, but the government can take steps to minimise the risks to public safety.
Banning combustible materials on all high-rise and high-risk buildings is a simple, clear, straightforward and effective step the government can take today. They have wide support from the public, from industry and from experts, and can move forward boldly. Ultimately, everyone deserves to live, learn, and heal in buildings that are fundamentally safe. It is the government’s responsibility to act.
Darryl Matthews is managing director of ROCKWOOL UK.