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Exterior cladding may have intensified London’s Grenfell Tower Fire

Exterior cladding may have intensified London’s Grenfell Tower Fire

Cladding was installed to meet U.K. “green energy” mandates, but the high-rise was not equipped with fire protection sprinkler systems.

The total losses from the inferno that swept through London’s Grenfell Tower last week are still being assessed. The count of dead victims has steadily increased with each report, and now stands at 79.

At least 79 people are dead or missing and presumed dead following the fire that tore through the 24-story Grenfell Tower in London, police have said.

Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy told a press conference Monday that only five victims have been formally identified so far, and the death toll may change.

“Sadly for many families they have lost more than one family member,” said Cundy, who added that the “painstaking” search and recovery operation is proceeding as quickly as possible, but may take “many many weeks.”

Ultimately, investigators may not be able to identify all those who died. Video taken during the initial phases of the investigation reveal the utter devastation.

At this point, the origin of the fire has been identified as a refrigerator. The firefighters initially believed they had extinguished the small blaze, only to discover it had spread rapidly.

Units were called to what they believed to be a standard fridge fire at the doomed high-rise, and within minutes told residents the fire was out in the flat.

The crew was leaving the building when firefighters outside spotted flames rising up the side of the building, BBC Panorama has uncovered.

The Fire Brigades Union say firefighters were left facing an unprecedented fire, and officers broke their own safety protocol to rescue people.

As an environmental health and safety professional, my initial assessment was that an accelerant had been used or that the incipient fire had ignited bomb-making material. It appears the root cause of the inferno may have been the recently installed exterior cladding, which is alleged to present a flammability hazard.

The material in the exterior cladding consisted of insulation sandwiched between two sheets of aluminum. The type used at Grenfell Tower is made under the Reynobond name by Arconic, a company spun off from the aluminum giant Alcoa last year. It was installed around the tower, which was built in 1974, in a renovation completed last year.

Critics of the material have warned for years that aluminum surface sheets can melt in a fire, after which flames could race through flammable insulation. If other protections fail and fire penetrates the cladding, “It is like you have got a high-rise building and you are encasing it in kerosene,” said Edwin Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich. “It is insanity, pure and simple.”

Such a runaway blaze appears to have been precisely what happened at Grenfell Tower. The flames engulfed the building in a matter of minutes, moving from the outside inward and emitting a dark smoke characteristic of burning insulation.

An extremely troubling aspect to this finding is the reason the cladding may have been selected: To meet Great Britain’s green energy mandates.

“It could be that this is the quest for sustainability trumping other concerns,” echoed Dr. Jim Glockling of the Fire Protection Association.

“There has been an emerging body of evidence surrounding some of the materials being used and now we have an appalling demonstration of what can happen,” Glockling said.

The Telegraph noted that cladding “is used as an insulation to make buildings more sustainable to meet green energy requirements.” Some 30,000 buildings in the U.K. have been retrofitted with cladding to cheaply comply with green energy mandates.

This type of cladding is prohibited for use in the construction of high rises in the United States and Germany.

Another contributing factor in this disaster is that Grenfell Tower lacked sprinkler systems typically required in high rise units.

Like many large British buildings, the Grenfell Tower didn’t have fire sprinklers, although government officials had repeatedly called for buildings like it to be retrofitted. Grenfell Tower is owned by the local government and is similar to other large public housing around the country.

So, the British government essentially imposed rules that mandated Grenfell Tower be encased in flammable substance, then allowed people to occupy the building without installing standard fire protection systems. This reads like something out of a bad 1970’s movie script.

This was a disaster waiting to happen. How many more Grenfell Towers remain?


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Government doing what they do best.

    YellowSnake in reply to Exiliado. | June 20, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    Yeah, we don’t need no stinkin’ govmint regulations. BTW, ever heard of the ‘Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’?

    Let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Bitterlyclinging | June 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

The foam insulating board commonly used in the US, most often underneath the concrete basement floor slab in the 2 feet nearest the perimeter and up against the perimeter concrete walls, also underneath the slab is referred to quite often as ‘Solid Gasoline’.
Concrete doesn’t burn, and the under the slab location makes access to the atmospheric oxygen necessary for combustion limited.
Its interesting that the PVC plumbing pipe survived the inferno.

    Tom Servo in reply to Bitterlyclinging. | June 20, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Yes – the cladding was made of Polyethylene and Aluminum. Aluminum burns at a relatively low temperature and works as an accelerant once that temperature is reached. Polyethylene = Plastic. There was even an air gap inside the cladding which was supposed to help increase the insulating factor, but also acted as an internal chimney which magnified and spread the fire.

    Short story, they wrapped an entire building in Plastic, and then were “shocked” when it turned into an 18 story tall roman candle at the first spark.

    This is one of the worst cases of negligence in the world since Bhopal.

      Joseph Farnsworth in reply to Tom Servo. | June 24, 2017 at 10:42 am

      Most probably polystyrene foam, not polyethylene. Possibly polyisocyanurate or polyurethane foam. But polyethylene is used for the rubbery foam insulation, typically black in color, over small water pipes.

    If it’s under the slab, it is innocuous. But it is often used on crawlspace and basement walls, and sometimes in attics. I just did a quick literature review of some insulation foam materials. There are many that are rated under ASTM E84 as Class 1, the lowest flame spread rating, and in the same class as concrete and sheetrock. But the ASTM test is carried out horizontally. The Grenfell Tower, and basement wall installations had the foam mounted vertically. I have no idea what the flame spread rating of the cladding panels was, but it was obviously inadequate.

So the building wasn’t built to safety standards but to goddamn hippie standards and people died. That’s criminal to me. I hope the families sue the crap out of the city government. (or whatever level said the ‘green’ exterior cladding was ok)

Finally, we can confirm deaths directly related to Mann Made Global Warming ™!!!!

While I’m as hot as anybody to blame Greenies for the world’s evils, this insulation theory is none too solid.

Testimony such as “and emitting a dark smoke characteristic of burning insulation” is unimpressive. Just about everything in a burning building emits dark smoke.

Some things don’t billow black smoke, even though they do in the movies—gasoline and hydrogen being probably the biggies. Most everything else does, due primarily to incomplete combustion and the release of unburned particles—mostly carbon, which is of course black.

    Tom Servo in reply to tom swift. | June 20, 2017 at 10:45 am

    Gasoline is very highly refined, but diesel and kerosene emit huge columns of very black smoke. I remember once having to find an oil field location that had a problem; the crew had accidentally set a 1/2 acre containment pit on fire, it was full of water but had 6 inches of crude oil floating on top.

    I literally spotted that column of smoke from 20 miles away. So did everybody else, of course. Not much came of the fire, it burned itself out, but boy did it get a lot of people excited.

      tom swift in reply to Tom Servo. | June 20, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      Sure. That’s why they use kerosene in the movies when a “car” is burning—it looks good, while the more authentic gasoline doesn’t. Heating oil, motor oil, cooking oil, jet fuel, all nice and smoky; they could use oil instead of kerosene but don’t seem to … no idea why not. Maybe has something to do with taxes; oils which can be considered fuel often have federal excise taxes buried in their prices.

Whatever started this fire, that building had NO SPRINKLER SYSTEM and some reports that I’m getting out of the UK say that it also did not have working smoke alarms!! That alone is criminal in this day and age.

I also notice looking at that top picture that there is a second building identical to this one in the background. I wonder how safe and secure the folks living in that one feel right about now . . . personally, I would sleep in the car if I had to.

    Petrushka in reply to Granny. | June 20, 2017 at 11:13 am

    This fire spread externally. Sprinklers would not have helped.

    Fireproof cladding, and separation between floors in the cladding would have confined the fire to the originating apartment.

      Mannie in reply to Petrushka. | June 21, 2017 at 9:22 am

      After their high rise cladding fire (over 100 stories but few casualties IIRC) The Emirates mandated external sprinklers to fight cladding fires. How effective they will be remains to be seen.

This cladding was used on the Dubai hotel that had a similar fire (but less deadly). My construction manager kids say that the space between the cladding and building forms a chimney that spreads the fire to higher floors. Flammable insulation provides the fuel.

There’s an organization called the Grenfell Action Group that called attention to this possibility several years ago. Much of their website has been taken down. The part that explicitly predicted this fire.

Folks who saw the movie Backdraft might have some idea of what happens when foam burns. At first it just smolders and produces fumes. In a confined space the fumes accumulate until they are explosive. The explosions are what spreads the fire from the exterior cladding to the interior of the building.

    Mannie in reply to Petrushka. | June 21, 2017 at 9:30 am

    More significant than the buildup of vapors, is the vertical orientation of the foam and the chimney effect of the four inch clear space between the panels and the wall. You get superheated gasses and flame travelling very quickly up that chimney, lighting the foam above it. You get a similar effect from the flames sort of sticking to the outside of the panels. The interstitial space should have been “fire stopped” with periodic barriers, as should the foam inside the panels. In US stick built houses, there is firestopping at the midpoint of stud walls; a horizontal 2×4 between each pair of studs. I have no idea what was supposed to be installed at Grenfell or what was actually installed. Whatever it was supposed to do, it failed.
    I would not want to be the specifying architect at this time.

What the fire chief needs to do is what the police chief did, get in front of a microphone tell everyone how great the diversity of burned victims was and UK citizens will have to accept more death to honor the green agenda.

This is identical to the Dubai high-rise fire last year. Cladding fire. Exteriors of buildings aren’t supposed to spread fire. This cladding, once on fire, got so hot, with the spaces it had, as it moved vertically, it incinerated the apartments that it passed. Incredible. We think of these kind of shoddy practices for India or China, but in the rush to be “green” lives were jeopardized.

I ponder, .. how many projects like this have gone on in the US? The ‘cladding” for energy.. Hopefully none, but the eco-drive it strong and seemingly over-rides common sense and real-world knowledge about safety and cost/benefit curves.

    Mannie in reply to RobM. | June 21, 2017 at 9:37 am

    There have been cladding fires like this on just about every continent.

    The cladding is both an aesthetic and an energy saving feature. The panels are an aluminum skin stuffed with insulation. They are supposed to be “green.”

    The irritating thing is that Reynoguard, the manufacturer, has two panels in that pattern. The ones that were installed, and a panel with mineral insulation, designated “FR” or Fire Resistant. The FR panels cost about £2 more per square foot. What a lousy place to save a trivial amount of money on a £9 million job. I’m sure the decision makers will be grilled. If I had to bet, some greenie at the Council specified the foam panels because they had a better R value; they insulated better.

I understand why energy efficient and noise reducing windows were installed. But I’m still not clear on why the cladding was necessary–was it for visual effect? What is its purpose?