When Banned Cladding Is Not Banned

Grenfell is beginning to feel like more than a horrific incident that has claimed the lives of as yet unknown numbers of people. It’s becoming a symbol of government neglect, of how little care and intention is given to ordinary people. The narrative that these people were killed because the refurbishment contractors would not shell out an extra £5000 is a powerful, sickening one.

Amid these narratives, it feels somehow tasteless to revert to forensic analysis of how this fire may have spread. Doing so, however, reveals that what I can only think of as homicidal neglect goes deeper, much deeper than general comment has yet highlighted.

I’ve already written that the problems in Grenfell Tower went a long way beyond the choice of cladding. However, the cladding is the natural place to start, and is at least symptomatic of what happened to other elements.

The refurbishment job would have fallen under the UK’s Building Regulations, and should therefore have been assessed and approved by Building Control, who are effectively the “policemen” of the regulations. The Regulations come with extensive technical advice, called Approved Documents; these are essentially the bible of what’s permitted, and any deviation requires the explicit agreement of Building Control. Rydon, the contractors, have stated that its work “met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards” – unless they are outright lying on this point, we can assume that the proper Building Control procedure was carried out and their proposed works were cleared for use.

This is where things get odd.

It has been widely reported that the cladding panels are considered acceptable for use in the U.K. and this seems to have been accepted as fact. In fact, it contravenes the Approved Documents [Edit: since I began the post, the UK government is challenging this and saying the cladding was not, in fact, permissible]. For high buildings, the standards increase: any insulation product or filler material must be of “limited combustibility” for buildings over 18m high (6-7 storeys) – see section 12.7. Limited Combustibility is defined in the regulations according to a European Standard – not only does the cladding used not come anywhere near complying, but the more expensive fire-rated cladding that has been cited in the news (Reynobond FR) does not comply either. A third type of cladding, designated Reynobond A2, should have been used.

So this cladding, which we have seen widely reported as “banned in Germany and the U.S.,” also contravenes the UK Approved Documents. And amid the focus on the cladding choice, we shouldn’t forget that the insulation behind the cladding has been forgotten – and this too was nowhere near “limited combustibility.”

So it would seem that Building Control – the policemen of the Building Regulations – raised no objection to this cladding being used. This leaves us the obvious question: how and why did that happen?

Here things get a little murkier still. The obvious assumption that most readers will make is that Building Control is a local authority or government body. They are not, or at least totally.

Under the Blair Government, the function of Building Control was devolved to allow private firms, hired by the person carrying out the development, to assess the design. This isn’t quite as bad as the Irish system of Assigned Certifiers, but it automatically pressurises the system in all sorts of ways. The Approved Building Inspector is not only somebody assessing a building, it’s also someone who needs to find work – and the people hiring them will be contractors. Any Inspector with a reputation for being a stickler will struggle toget commissions, so even the most morally upright person is now economically encouraged to be – ah – let’s say “flexible.” Because the private option now exists, local authority Building Control now has less leverage to get proper funding; the result of underfunding is that people are unable to scrutinise designs as deeply as they would like to.

There are three ways that this panel could have found its way onto the building: first, Building Control (probably an Approved Building Inspector) knew it was being used, knew it didn’t comply with the Approved Documents, and allowed its use anyway; second, the panel specification given to building control was not what went on the building, and – whether by design or oversight – the cheaper, more flammable version was substituted; third, the contractor and their design team simply didn’t think about the fire spread element, and Building Control just didn’t check the specification.

The first strikes me as enormously unlikely. The second two are both entirely plausible – and both point to the probability that this sort of breach can easily be repeated, over and over again, due to a lack of proper oversight. In the case of Grenfell Tower, where multiple failures lead to such carnage, we can look at that oversight happening across the board. The alarms were not linked. The staircase was not protected. There was no water for the fire brigade. Failure upon failure upon failure. This is chilling.

I’ll openly say that I simply didn’t think something like Grenfell Tower could happen. I thought that shoddy building would probably lead to a serious incident. I thought there might be some fatalities, or mass destruction of property. But this…? I thought that there were just too many failures needed, that nothing could be deficient in so many areas without someone in officialdom noticing, someone stepping in, somebody stopping it. I was wrong.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby writes about being caught in a crowd crush, nearly ten years before Hillsborough. Even though he couldn’t breathe properly, and even though he could pick up his legs and remain pinioned, he wasn’t particularly worried. People around him pulled funny faces. As he says:

“In England somebody, somewhere, knew what they were doing, and there was this system, which nobody ever explained to us, that prevented accidents of this kind. It might seem as though the authorities, the club and the police were pushing their luck on occasions, but that was because we didn’t understand properly how they were organising things… [people] were laughing because they were only feet away from unconcerned constables and mounted officers, and they knew that this proximity ensured their safety… [after Hillsborough] it occurred to me that I could have died that night, and that on a few other occasions I have been much closer to death than I dared to think about. There was no plan after all: they really had been riding their luck all that time.”

This is what I find upsetting. It’s true that the local residents had been highlighting issues for years. But there were probably lots of other residents who thought that, even if there was a problem here or there, nothing could be that bad. A power surge might cause a fire, but the smoke alarms would keep them safe; a fire extinguisher might not work, but they would run out of the apartment and use another one. Because it couldn’t be that terrible, nobody would actually let them live in a fire trap.

I was wrong, they were wrong. The state had been happy to risk their lives, all that time. To risk anyone’s.

About Mike Morris

A British / Irish architect who practiced in Ireland and Ontario, now working in the U.K.
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2 Responses to When Banned Cladding Is Not Banned

  1. RC says:

    Hi, good piece, but you need to read ADB2 from clause 12.5. There are effectively two options, comply with BR135 (and testing or assessment to BS 8414) or comply with clauses 12.6-12.9.

    Combustible insulation is banned, *unless* proven by tests that the cladding system prevents fire transfer. My suspicion is that there was some form of appropriate testing on a ‘perfect’ system, but the way it was built on this job caused a problem. This is just a hunch – but one based on seeing many misclaims and misapplications of data over combustible insulation in facades over the last few years. In these cases unless the building control inspector has detailed awareness of these issues then its no wonder that it gets missed – there are thousands of items to check and superficially this cladding system is likely to appear satisfactory. I think a separate fire safety control body is probably needed to allow genuine specialists to sign these buildings off.

    • Mike Morris says:

      Thanks RC. I did read Clause 12.5 but frankly didn’t include it, because the supplier (Alcoa) doesn’t advertise any such fire-safe assembly, and it seems very unlikely to me that the contractor would carry out such testing on a bespoke system for a job like this (which would be expensive).

      (I probably should have clarified this “edit”. I try to write these to be accessible to the general public, so I leave out some of the more academic angles to try and keep the posts uncluttered – in hindsight I should have added a footnote)

      However, you’re right – there is a possibility that they submitted testing of something similar, and then didn’t build in precise accordance with the system.

      I also agree on walled-off enforcement of fire safety. Having practiced in the UK and Ireland, the UK is generally superior to Ireland in terms of enforcement (yes, really) – the one exception being that Ireland has a separate Fire Safety Certificate, pertaining only to Part B, which needs to be applied for to the local authority. It means that all designs are reviewed by a fire officer and is a far superior system in my view.

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