Electricity: Part One

The first in an energetic series of posts on what electricity is and how it’s used, generated and distributed.

We don’t consume electricity; we use energy; transforming it into different forms to make our world brighter, warmer (or cooler) and make work easier. We strive to conserve and efficiently use energy, but in the end, we really only change energy from one form to another. Energy never goes away; it just finds another job to do.

If electricity is only the transportation system for the energy we use, then what is electricity and how does it work?

Although the Money Pit is one of my favorite movies, here is an example of how electricity does NOT behave.

https://youtu.be/VhrSzUm3zhU?t=16s

In the simplest of terms, electrical current is the excitement and flow of electrons. To understand what that means, we need to start with the most basic building block of all matter: the atom. All matter is made from a combination of atoms (either of one kind or multiple). Any substance that cannot be separated into a simpler substance by chemical means is considered an element. All known elements are cataloged within the ‘Periodic Table of Elements’, a table that has stressed out generations of high school chemistry students. The periodic table of elements describes the individual atomic characteristics of each element, and knowing those characteristics gives us more insight into how they all behave with each other. It’s not unlike knowing the personality types of your friends and co-workers.

Periodic-table
The Periodic Table of Elements
Each atom is composed of three basic particles: the electron, proton and neutron. Protons and Neutrons are located in the atom’s nucleus, with the electrons orbiting around in a series of concentric “shells”. Science has uncovered even smaller particles that make up and hold together each atom’s structure, but for our purposes it is the negatively charged electrons (or their absence) that hold the secrets of electricity.

Early scientists such as a Frenchman by the name of Charles Dufay realized that certain materials became attracted to certain objects, but were repelled by others. The forces of attraction and repulsion are described as either a positive or negative charge. As neutrons have no charge, each atom’s nucleus has a net positive charge. As Paula Abdul’s 1988 hit described, “We come together, cuz opposites attract”. Objects with similar charges are repelled from each other, and those with opposite charges are attracted to each other.

At this point, I know that many readers are beginning to have flashbacks to early childhood science class and are wondering, “Where is he going with this? It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry.”

Excitement is exactly what electricity is all about. The outer shell (known as valance electrons) of each atom contains between one and eight electrons. Each atom seeks stability by filling up its outer shell with all eight; a nice calm retirement of sorts. Some atoms like the noble gases Argon and Xenon start out with their outer shells full; they’re calm, unexciting and don’t over-react. Other elements such as gold, silver and copper have only one electron in their outer shell and are more than willing to dance the night away in an attempt to lose that electron and settle down into a more stable existence (a very unlikely outcome given their propensity to getting over-excited). The following animation shows a copper atom, with only one electron in its outer shell. The nucleus, comprised of 39 neutrons and 39 protons is shown as a single sphere at the center (To be honest, I didn’t feel like modeling all 78 spheres in the nucleus; my obsessive nature does have its limits).

Atom Model Moving - 25fps 640x480
Copper (CU),  Animation © DFD Architects, Inc.
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, we can group elements and materials by how they behave when excited. In terms of electricity, elements and materials (combinations of elements) can be put into three groups:

Conductors, Insulators and Semi-conductors.

Elements with 3 or less electrons in their outer shells are generally conductors (although the exact number of electrons does not always determine which elements are the best conductors). Because they have lots of empty room in that outer orbit, they are less stable and more likely to lose their remaining electrons when bumped around (The bump theory is a commonly held explanation for how electrons are passed from one atom to another). Insulating materials such as wood, glass and rubber are combinations of elements that fill their outer shells by sharing their electrons with other elements. These materials are composed of elements such as Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen and Hydrogen. Alone these elements are not very stable, but combined they have found comfort and stability. Selective elements such as Silicon and Germanium are termed semi-conductors, and have 4 electrons in their outer shell. With a little encouragement these elements can be persuaded to lose an electron or two and become negatively charged. These materials have become indispensable in the development of solid-state circuitry and computers in general.

That bumping around of electrons in a conductor is precisely where the transfer of energy via electricity happens. Like billiard balls on a pool table, when the energy is introduced at one end (the player hitting the cue ball), energy is transferred from one ball to the next. Not all energy is passed from one ball to the next however. In billiards, you’d hear the sound of balls hitting, and if measured, you could see the heat generated by the instantaneous collision. With electrons in a conductor, that energy release may be heat, light and almost always a magnetic field.

Magnets? I thought we were discussing electricity?

Everyone has played with magnets as a kid (or adult). Those of us old enough to remember iron filing and magnet toys such as “Wooly Willy”, have seen what a magnetic field actually looks like. The following image shows a magnet with a negative and positive end (or “pole”) often termed a North and South pole.  The iron filings align with the resultant magnetic lines of force (or ‘flux’). No we are not going to enter into a discussion of whether Santa Claus or penguins reside on either pole (maybe in a later post).

Magnet0873
Patterns of magnetic flux (iron filings and a magnet)
Magnetic fields, created by electrons flowing through a conductive material, are precisely what enables a generator or alternator to initiate the flow of electricity, and appliances such as motors to use that flow of electromagnetic energy to create mechanical movement.

This whole discussion can seem very theoretical, given that we can only see the results of what magnetics and electricity can do. So how do we measure that flow of energy across a conductor?

Before we talk about measuring electricity, it’s important to know why it flows at all. Electromagnetic energy will not flow through anything unless it has somewhere to go. OK, time for a few metaphors:

Everyone is familiar with water pipes in their house, or at least knows that water comes from somewhere when the faucet is turned on. Why doesn’t water flow continuously from the kitchen faucet? It doesn’t flow all the time, because without an open outlet (someone using that water), it will just sit nice and quiet in the pipe. Open a faucet, and the water begins to flow. Break a pipe or create a leak, and water will flow to places you don’t want it to. Electricity is very similar. Without a load, or something to use that energy, there is no need for the electrons to bump into each other and pass along their energy. Unlike the water in our pipes however, electricity wants to flow from a positively charged source to negatively charged one (this is according to popular theory, but let’s leave theory out of this for the moment as it gives me a headache). More often than not, that flow may be from a positive terminal of battery to the negative one, or a positive source to the earth itself (such as in a building’s electrical system). Without a complete “circuit” to follow, the electrons will have nowhere to go, and the flow of electricity will stop. If you provide a complete path for the electricity to follow, then it will happily oblige. There is a reason that they refer to the Formula One race car events as a circuit. If the road was open on both ends and didn’t connect, it would be a very short race. Yes, I’m aware that would be considered drag racing; metaphors have their limits.

Measuring the energy carried by electricity

Before I lose anyone, let’s talk about volts, amps and watts. In my next post we’ll talk about AC/DC, and by that I’m referring to Alternating and Direct Current, not the 80’s band from Australia. I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase, “It’s not the voltage you have to worry about; it’s the amps”. While partially true; why? It has to do with force and potential energy.

If electricity is the flow of electrons, then measuring energy carried by electricity must involve electrons right? Well, unless you have an incredibly powerful microscope, and someone who is really fast at counting, we’re going to need a standard to measure against for counting electrons. Here we learn about Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, a French physicist whom the standard imperial measurement of charge was named after (his story would be another post). One coulomb is equivalent to the charge of 6.242 X 1018 electrons. That’s a lot of electrons. In obnoxiously large numeric terms, that’s six quintrillion, two hundred and forty-two quadrillion electrons. That should be easy enough to put into an Excel spreadsheet, right? Well, instead of counting every electron over a period of time, how about we just divide the total number of electrons by a nice big number like a coulomb? Well it so happens that the volume of one coulomb per second is referred to as an ampere. Whoa! Amps are actually related to something physical?! Don’t get too excited, we’re still talking about theoretically numbers and some basic assumptions, but at least we have somewhere to start.

So if one ampere (normally referred to as an Amp), is a volume of electrons over time, then we should be able to measure the energy those electrons are moving with them right? Not so fast. Volume (or size) is one side of the equation, but we’re missing the other half. We need a push. We need that potential energy to work with.

Caution: Dangerous metaphors ahead.

What is potential energy? If your house was on fire, and you asked for a water hose; I’m sure you’d be rather upset if someone walked up with a garden hose connected to a hand pump. You’d prefer a fire hose connected to a rather large fire truck I’m sure. Why? The difference is in potential energy. Only so much water can flow through a garden hose. Given a bigger and stronger hose, you could push more water through it. Water is normally measured in volume over time; commonly gallons per minute. A garden hose can easily provide 10 gallons per minute, but so can a fire hose. The fire hose however has the potential to provide much, much more water if it is needed (which it usually is). Here’s another example: Let’s say you are sitting quietly at the base of ten-foot cliff, and a rock is perched very precariously above you. It’s not moving, but given a bit of a push, it could fall at any time. If that rock weighed a few grams, the potential for harm to your pretty head is minimal. If that rock weighed 10,000 lbs., then the potential for harm would be rather substantial. Unless it’s actually falling, both rocks are harmless. The 5-ton rock however has a much larger potential energy (it COULD exert a much bigger force).

Since electricity transmits energy, we need to know the volume of energy over time, but we also need to know the level of force with which it is delivered. In terms of water in a pipe, this potential energy is referred to as pressure (in pounds per square inch, or PSI). In the flow of electrons, this potential energy or pressure is called voltage. One Volt is the potential energy it would take to drive one amp of current against a given load (we’ll talk about loads in the next post).

Now we’ve brought energy and force into the equation. Flowing electrons mean nothing if they bump off a conductor one at a time, but if they flow in great numbers (along with their accompanying magnetic fields) with a large amount of force, then now we have energy we can use. With both volume and force, we can move almost anything.

So how do we measure the power or work that electricity provides? Enter the “Watt”. One watt is equal to one volt of potential energy times one ampere of flow. The watt is a measure of the real power that pushes, heats or illuminates. For comparisons, this would be similar to horsepower (735.5 watts), or foot-pounds of force per second (1.355 watts).

In electrical terms, the watt, is proportionately equal to the volts (the potential energy) times the amps (the volume of flow). 1 Watt = 1 Volt x 1 Amp. I know. Some of you just went… uh, duh, but the majority of people just had that little 13 watt LED light bulb (equivalent to a 60 watt incandescent bulb) go off in their head and said, “Oohhhh, I get it.”. You’re welcome.

So let’s stop there for the moment, because unless you’re an electrical engineer or a geek like me, you may need a week to recover from reading this post.

Next time we’ll talk about Direct Current, Alternating Current, Single-Phase Power, Three-Phase Power, generators and transformers. I know, you’ll have a tough time waiting, but it should be worth it.

In the meantime, here is your moment of Zen (Yes, I’m a fan of the Daily Show on Comedy Central):

https://youtu.be/Yzht2_41caU?t=2m

Comments!

I promise not to beg, but I would really welcome any comments; both good and bad (but constructive). The more feedback I get; the better my posts can be. Thanks!!

Copyrights:

The Money Pit, Copyright NBC Universal, 1986

A Christmas Story, Copyright Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, 1983

Magnet and Periodic Table images are public domain and are available on https://commons.wikimedia.org

Architects are their own worst enemies

From my own experience, the public’s opinion of architects in general is still a positive one, but the architect’s reputation within the construction industry and among those who inspect various building types is not complimentary. Why is that? Have architects created an unreasonably high opinion of themselves?

Few professions can be described in a single word (or two). Those that can often date back hundreds or thousands of years into history. Every profession that spans centuries is going to change and adapt to changes in culture, science, technology and the needs of society in general. The job of an Architect is no different.

So what is an Architect?

“architect: a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction”(1)

The preceding definition is a much more modern summary of an Architect’s role and responsibilities than the concept of a “Master Builder”; the predecessor to the Architect of today.

“Master Builder: a person notably proficient in the art of building; the ancient Egyptians were master builders; specifically:  one who has attained proficiency in one of the building crafts and is qualified or licensed to supervise building construction”(1)

Many Architects would like to think of themselves as following in the footsteps of the Master Builders of the Greek, Roman and Renaissance eras where the roles of designer, builder and craftsman were commonly embodied in only a select few. Early famous architects such as Vitruvius, Palladio, and later figures such as Thomas Jefferson gained notoriety and respect through experience, reading, apprenticeship and self-study. As the world population increased and people’s skills became more specialized, the role of the Architect moved away from the actual construction of the built environment to a focus more on design and took on an advisory role in construction. Considering the increase in size of projects and complexity of materials and systems used in construction today, this isn’t a surprising development. Many architects today however have become distanced from the realities of construction, with some college graduates unable to draw the most basic of details regarding framing or similar trades, and many architects never even stepping foot on a construction site until well into their careers.

In 1857, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the primary professional organization for architects in the United States was founded to “promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members” and “elevate the standing of the profession”. (2)

Prior to the founding of the AIA, “anyone who wished to call him-or herself an architect could do so. This included masons, carpenters, bricklayers, and other members of the building trades. No schools of architecture or architectural licensing laws existed to shape the calling”.(2) The architectural profession evolved out of those individuals with the knowledge and experience to design and construct a building.

Prior to 1897, no legal definition of “architect”, nor any requirements for an architect’s education or licensing existed until Illinois became the first state to adopt architect licensing laws.(1) Today, all fifty states, through joint efforts with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and the AIA use a mostly standardized system of certification and testing for the task of licensing architects. While the original goal of setting standards for what defined an “architect” was in the best interests of the general public, the modern definition of an architect and the profession was founded on the desire to promote for the improvement of those calling themselves architects and to elevate the profession itself. Please do not misinterpret this as a statement against the requirement of licensing architects. On the contrary; I fully believe that it has, and will continue to be, of the utmost importance.

Today, the objects of the AIA, “shall be to organize and unite in fellowship the members of the architectural profession of the United States of America; to promote the aesthetic, scientific and practical efficiency of the profession; to advance the science and art of planning and building by advancing the standards of architectural education, training and practice; to coordinate the building industry and the profession of architecture to insure the advancement of the living standards of people through their improved environment; and to make the profession of ever-increasing service to society.”(2)

While the architectural industry and society in general has greatly benefited from minimum standards of education and training for architects in the United States (in large part due to the efforts of the AIA and its members), the current role that architects play in society varies significantly. The realty of whether the architect of today is fully capable of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the general public is a topic of great debate depending on your point of view and role in the design and construction industry.

For better and for worse

From my own experience, the public’s opinion of architects in general is still a positive one, but the architect’s reputation within the construction industry and among those who inspect various building types is not complimentary. Why is that? Have architects created an unreasonably high opinion of themselves?

The architect has historically been looked up to as an expert in a field of specialized knowledge. Architects are required however to be generalists; knowing a little bit about every trade and discipline they oversee, but not directly in control of the construction or engineering of a project. The architect is looked upon to provide direction and advice to those constructing a building, as well as organizing the various engineering disciplines that are needed. The role of an Architect has often become that of a manager; settling disputes between the owner, contractor and other entities. While architects will always play a key role in the design and production of construction documents; other than in a small percentage of high profile and high priced projects, the owners and contractors are the large guiding force in the design process. The architect often takes a backseat role in the decision-making process during construction (and even earlier on). Is this appropriate? Yes and no. Unless an architect has a partial ownership in the project, it’s not their money. Many architects may say that good design is the most important part of their job, but a gorgeous building that leaks or is a danger to its occupants is a failure (Refer to my previous post on the Grenfell Towers in London).  Their responsibility at a core level is to protect the health, safety and welfare of those persons that will use, occupy and are affected by the project. Would you rather occupy a building that is pretty and dangerous to your safety or a so-so building that protects you? Of course, we’d like the best of both, but that would require architects to step up and recognize that their technical expertise in building codes and fire safety is just as, if not more important, than their design talents. Meeting their clients budget and design goals is absolutely critical, but never at the expense of a person’s health or safety.

You might ask, “Don’t architects have to know all the codes and don’t they learn that in school? Isn’t the ability to protect us the most important part of their job?

The real answer is scarier than you think.

I’m going to quote another architect, who blogs under the name of Sheldon. I do not know him on a personal or professional level, and I will not make any statement about his qualifications, knowledge or character. I only want to address the statements he made, as I don’t not think he is alone in his opinion and he brings up assumptions that I think are the reason that others view of architects has degraded:

The labyrinthine regulations of the federal government reminded me of regulations we in construction deal with every day. They are similarly complex and obscure, differing only in extent. I was not surprised that I didn’t understand the subjects of the senate hearing, but on further thought, I realized I really don’t know much about the countless codes and regulations that govern construction. Nor, I’m sure, does anyone else.

The picture that accompanies this article shows just a few of the code books we use at my office. In the picture are a few versions of the IBC, a couple of Wisconsin code binders, several books of Minnesota codes, a few versions of NFPA 101, an elevator code book, and a few books that explain what’s in the codes. This collection is nowhere near complete; we have many additional code books for Minnesota and Wisconsin, plus others for North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa, as well as for a couple of other states. I can only imagine what national and international firms have in their libraries.

Presumably, when someone certifies documents, that certification implies that the responsible person (or someone under that person’s direct supervision) understands everything in every statute, code, rule, and regulation governing the work of the project, and that the project complies with all of them. What does that tell us?

First, I think it’s safe to say that most of most regulations simply codify what was already common practice, much of which was based on empirical evidence. We build walls of 2 x 4s at 16 inches on center because it’s been done that way a long time and it seems to work. Later additions were added after due consideration; someone probably tested walls with framing at 24 inches on center and that worked, too.

Many requirements were added in response to building failures. Even then, I suspect much of what’s in the code is based on intuition, rather than on basic research beginning with the question, “What is required?” Though useful for comparative evaluations, code requirements often are not based on real-world applications. (See “Faith-based specifications.”)

I also think it’s safe to say it’s unlikely that any building complies with all regulations. Regardless of the source or value of those requirements, it’s clear that there are too many for any one person, or even several people, to understand. Making things more difficult is the fact that some information is restated in different codes, often in slightly different fashion, and some codes are more restrictive than others.

The International Code Council (ICC) publishes a dozen or so building and fire codes, which reference hundreds of standards published by ASHRAE, ASCE, and various other organizations, including about 50 of the 375 published by NFPA. These secondary codes also cite other standards, and so on, and so on, and so on. States then modify the basic codes, as do local jurisdictions. Some variations are required by local seismic and weather conditions, but many make little sense. All of these form the basic reference library for everyone involved in construction. Codes are continually being updated, usually on a three-year cycle. But not everyone is on the same cycle; some states update to follow the major codes more quickly than others, and different states will use different versions of the same codes.

My firm does mostly medical work, which must comply not only with the IBC and state codes, but also with NFPA 101, dictates of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Joint Commission, as well as requirements of individual clients. I’m sure we’re not alone, and that other types of construction have similar additional requirements.

Is all of this really necessary? I concede that there are special situations that require special treatment, but it’s hard to believe there are enough special circumstances to justify the mountain of code books we must deal with. While it is somewhat understandable that we have codes for specific conditions, there is no excuse for conflicts between different codes. (4)

As a licensed architect who currently works in the healthcare design industry, a former inspector / surveyor for the State of Texas, and therefore also a federal surveyor working on behalf of the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS); I am appalled that any architect would admit that, “I realized I really don’t know much about the countless codes and regulations that govern construction. Nor, I’m sure, does anyone else.”.

The dozens of building and fire codes, standards and other regulations under which the healthcare industry operates are all critically important to the safety of those residents and patients that reside in any facility. Codes and standards are NOT based on “intuition”, they are based on actual building failures and tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire(5), the MGM Grand Fire(6), and the Station nightclub fire(7). Building codes and all their referenced standards and testing procedures exist for the sole purpose of protecting the lives of people that cannot protect themselves (as is the case for healthcare occupancies), or allowing those who are capable the time to reach safety in the event of a fire or other emergency. All codes and standards have their limitations and fallacies, after all they are written by human beings with biases and their own agendas; Therefore, codes and standards are written by groups of people, with the hopeful intent of avoiding personal preferences. This process also allows for codes to change over time when new information is available or lessons have been learned. Understanding the complexities of the codes and standards is not easy, but that’s why the task is delegated to individuals with the skill set and desire to understand them. Its our job.

Many architects have lost (if ever had) their connection to the real-world requirements of constructing a building, and most do not understand the most important part of their profession, and that is the protection of those that occupy the buildings they design. If those professionals (architects) that are tasked with the responsibility to ensure buildings are made safe are not capable of doing so, how on earth can they expect owners, contractors or anyone else to take up that charge?

I am not implying that all architects are guilty of ignoring their responsibilities, nor am I suggesting that I, in any way, am guilt-free. I want to bring attention to the fact that the architectural industry (including the educational side) has put a huge emphasis on the artistic and design aspects or architecture and have grossly ignored the importance of safety and code compliance. This has led to the common opinion of many contractors and owners that architects are egotistical and know nothing of the real world.

I could write an entire post about the fact that my own Alma-mater’s curriculum included only a single one-semester class (one hour, twice a week) on building and life safety codes over the course of a five-year professional bachelor’s degree program, and  then more than half of my class that year failed the course. That’s not unfortunate; its shameful.

So why are architects their own worst enemies? Many of the architects I have met and worked with are incapable of checking their egos long enough to learn the realities of the construction industry and embrace the critical importance of building safety and the codes that facilitate that goal. They instead have taken a combative stance against the codes and those jurisdictions that adopt and enforce them. I tell people constantly that if they don’t agree with the code; get involved and change it. Complaining about the codes only shows one’s ignorance of their role and importance.

Architects must embrace the incredible responsibility they bear on behalf of society. The task of keeping others safe should be a humbling one, not a reason to, “elevate the standing of the profession”. That should be a result, not a goal.

Action; not words

There are of course many more facets of the architectural profession that I did not address such as environmental responsibility, efficiency and preservation that are discussions unto themselves.

I am a licensed architect and I am proud to call myself one. I make a lot of mistakes, and I often let my ego get in the way of what’s right, but I recognize that, and I’m always working to improve.

I put the challenge to every architect (or those working with architects and/or towards the same goals); treat this profession with the respect it deserves by fulfilling the expectations society puts on you. Learn everything you possibly can about the codes, regulations and standards you are charged with upholding. Think of the people your designs protect and shelter first; your own ego and gratification should be the lowest of priorities.

Footnotes:

(1) Definitions:

www.Merriam-Webster.com

(2) History of The American Institute of Architects

Archived/www.aia.org/about_history at web.archive.org

(3) American Institute of Architects Bylaws, Revised April 2017

http://aiad8.prod.acquia-sites.com/sites/default/files/2017-05/AIA-Bylaws-April2017.pdf

(4) Constructive Thoughts, Observations and musings about architecture and the construction industry.

http://swconstructivethoughts.blogspot.com/2017/02/tower-of-babel.html#more

(5) The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire

http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/story/introduction.html

(6) MGM Grand Fire

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MGM_Grand_fire

(7) The Station nightclub fire

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Station_nightclub_fire

Featured Image from: http://www.wikihow.com/Become-an-Architect

Codes must be followed to be effective; Immediate lessons from the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

grenfell-tower-fire-1704-hero
Photo from https://static.dezeen.com/

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.

Grenfell.jpg
Photo from: https://cdn.saleminteractivemedia.com

Grenfell Plan

  • 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
    Grenfell Colored Elevation.jpg
    Images from : http://i.dailymail.co.uk

    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.

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

https://www.arconic.com

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.