A huge amount of information has flooded the internet and media outlets regarding the possible causes and now future ramifications of this tragedy. As the exterior cladding of the building is being initially blamed for the fire’s rapid propagation, the presence of such a material on dozens of other government owned housing blocks has led to large-scale evacuations of residents, putting thousands of people out of their homes.
This fire will no doubt lead to civic and criminal investigations in the UK, but what can those of us in the United States learn from such a disaster? The worst possible outcome for those of us watching from across the Atlantic would be complacency, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen here.” Really? Are you sure?
What went wrong?
Initial investigations by local authorities and news organizations has focused on a “flammable” exterior cladding installed during a recent renovation project to the Grenfell tower and others like it. The product installed (allegedly confirmed by the manufacturer) was a Metal Composite Material (MCM) as defined by the International Building Code (IBC), a model code that has been adopted in some form across all fifty states in the US. The MCM installed on Grenfell Tower is a product called Reynobond PE, manufactured by Alcoa Architectural Products, located in Eastman, Georgia. Reynobond PE consists of layers of Aluminum sheets over a polyethylene core (foamed plastic). The panel as a whole meets IBC flame spread requirements (Class A per ASTM E84), however the polyethylene core on its own does not. The product is manufactured in accordance with US standards and is permitted for installation on buildings as high as 75 feet tall per the IBC, with VERY specific exceptions. The primary exception is that such a product cannot be installed on a building higher than 40 feet above the ground unless that building is equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, and then never installed above 75 feet above the ground. Alcoa also produces a product called Reynobond FR, which has a mineral board core that meets the ASTM E84 flame spread requirements on its own.
Another likely cause of the fast growing fire was the way in which exterior columns were clad in MCM panels. Quickly looking at the plans of the Grenfell Tower, listening to reports and interviews of tenants, and reviewing images of the devastation itself, one can quickly see several problems that possibly led to the fire’s growth and more importantly made it extremely difficult to for residents to escape the building before conditions became untenable.
- There appears to be a relatively large gap between the cladding material and the structural columns of the building itself along the exterior. This kind of cladding style is called a “curtain-wall”, as it is attached to the face of the building, and does not terminate at each floor, but creates its own cavity on the building’s perimeter. looking at the pictures following the fire, the space between the structural column and the cladding is quite large. Per the IBC, this kind of curtain wall assembly must be
firestopped at each floor level using a Perimeter-Fire-Containment System such as those tested and listed in the UL Certifications Directory (systems such as CW-D-1001).
- Grenfell Tower had only a single exit stairway. For a 24 story residential high-rise, which would have an occupant load of no less than 22 people per floor (based on the floor plan of Grenfell Tower and the 2003 IBC), a minimum of 2 stairways would be required without exception.
- The building did not appear to have an automatic sprinkler system or manual fire alarm system interconnected with automatic detection devices.
All of these factors likely contributed to the fire’s rapid growth and the inability for residents to evacuate fast enough.
Codes have to be followed to be effective:
You may say then, “Well, those issues can’t happen here because our codes don’t allow it”. This is where the truth really matters. It can happen here. Having the rules to follow doesn’t mean that everyone follows them. Having laws that limit the speed on every highway in America does not keep thousands of people from breaking them every day. I could not begin to list all of the code violations I have witnessed over my career that were either simple mistakes, intentional omissions, or a lack of understanding about what the code really requires. The third reason is actually the scariest one. Honest mistakes happen, and I’m sure intentional code violations exist as well, but in my experience, the most common reason codes are not followed, is because designers, owners and contractors don’t understand them. Ignorance is not bliss, its dangerous.
Although I have not seen a building constructed with too few stairways, I have seen plenty of stairs that were not protected from the rest of the building, had blocked exit doors at the bottom, were too narrow, had locked doors going into them, or some other issue that essentially eliminated them as a possible exit. Having the stair doesn’t mean anything if you can’t use it.
Having a fire alarm and fire sprinkler system is absolutely worthless if the systems are not installed correctly and then routinely inspected and maintained to ensure they work. Having a sprinkler system means nothing when it fails to work because someone unintentionally blocked a sprinkler head or closed a valve.
The exterior columns at Grenfell Tower, if it does turn out to be the issue it appears to be, is due to a lack of understanding on how a fire acts, and why the building codes are written to limit the spread of a fire. This exact issue could happen in the US if a contractor substitutes a less-expensive product (like the Reynobond PE instead of using the FR version), having no other intention than saving the owner money, but the design team is either not part of that decision, or fails to understand its ramifications. Whether the PE or FR product was used, a building official in the US could easily miss the requirements to firestop the perimeter of each floor at such a system. Such omissions could result in a similar fire without anyone even knowing the issue exists.
What can you do?
Educate yourself. Surround yourself with educated people if you can’t understand the requirements yourself. The costs are too great to downplay or ignore anything having to do with fire safety and building codes in any type of construction.
Ignorance is not funny and not acceptable. Education and knowledge are our greatest asset in preventing tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire from happening again.
Notice: The commentary above regarding possible causes and circumstances surrounding the fire at Grenfell Tower are personal speculations and assumptions. Educate yourself on the facts. Listen to the evidence presented to you and research the actual laws and codes that were applicable. That’s my entire point.