NEWS

Grenfell Tower Fire demonstrates the effects of cascading failures

Investigations have indicated that the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower Fire on June 14 began with a broken refrigerator which ignited exposed gas pipes and highly flammable building materials. The fire ultimately resulted in the death of at least 79 people.

Grenfell Tower Burning (Wikimedia/Natalie Oxford)

Prior to the fire, residents had feared that installation of exposed gas pipes would result in a disaster, going as far as to contact the London Fire Brigade (LFB) to notify them of their fears. A fire safety consultant had approved the pipes and risers on the condition that they were clad in fire-rated boxing; on March 27th National Grid told the local council that the pipes would be protected; however, only one third of pipes were protected by June 14th, when the fire started. Ultimately, although Scotland Yard and the London Fire Brigade refuse to comment on the specifics of the fire investigation, the LFB did note that they were unable to extinguish the fire until a ruptured gas main had been isolated.

Reynobond, the cladding on the outside of the Grenfell Tower, was identified as another contributor to the spread of the fire. Reynobond is an “aluminum composite material” cladding, with two sheets of aluminum surrounding a core that is only somewhat fire-resistant. The specific type used for Grenfell Tower was Reynobond PE, known to be less fire-resistant than other versions, and recommended by the manufacturer to only be used for buildings up to 10 meters tall; Grenfell Tower was over 60 meters tall. Arconic, the company that manufactures Reynobond has discontinued its production and sales for high-rises, due to “the inconsistency of building codes across the world.” Meanwhile, over 600 buildings are being tested for similar cladding materials, and Camden Council evacuated 650 flats in four tower blocks after receiving information about cladding, gas pipe insulation, and fire door risks from the London Fire Brigade

The Grenfell Tower also lacked other basic fire safety features including an absence of “fire alarms, sprinklers, and a fire escape,” with only a single staircase. Furthermore, residents were reportedly warned by the Fire Brigade and by the management company to stay inside of their apartments in the event of a fire, because the building was supposed to be made to resist fires. Many of these issues were ignored by local politicians that promised to cut wasteful red tape, and allowed builders to wrap apartment towers in flammable materials through the Regulator Reform Order, which ended a requirement that government inspectors had to certify that buildings met fire codes.

The Grenfell Tower fire demonstrates a failure of resilience on multiple levels, from policy, planning, and law to engineering to market incentives for safer building materials.

Sources and Further Reading:

  1. Grenfell Tower gas pipes left exposed despite fire safety expert’s orders – The Guardian
  2. Grenfell Tower: cladding material linked to fire pulled from sale worldwide – The Guardian
  3. Grenfell Tower: Cladding firm ends global sales for tower blocks – BBC
  4. Why Grenfell Tower Burned: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety – New York Times
  5. S. Company Discontinues the Siding Used on the Grenfell Tower – The Atlantic
  6. Several States in the US Allow the Same Cladding That Turned Grenfell Tower Into a Time Bomb – Gizmodo
  7. Grenfell Tower Fire Highlights Need for Resilient Designs – GRI