Editor’s Comment – July

This will long be remembered as the year when regeneration became devastation.

Beyond the appalling human tragedy which the Grenfell Tower fire represents for the individuals killed and injured and families traumatised for life, is a wider shadow cast across the construction industry.

While the investigation is going to be necessarily long and complex, this only reflects the horrendous web of complexity and, possibly, laxity when it comes to the regulations which are intended to protect building users. At the time of writing, all 120 samples of cladding which have been sent to the BRE for testing by 32 local authori- ties have been found to be below the threshold needed to qualify as “limited combustibility” which would make them suitable for use under the Building Regulations.

For whatever reason however, Building Regulations appear vague and/or confusing on of all things, fire perform- ance, and are open to interpretation to the extent that according to some commentators it’s unclear even whether the cladding material itself is required to be fire retardant. This means that Grenfell may have ‘complied with regs’ but the cladding could still have fatally compromised the fire performance of the exterior.

According to David Metcalfe of research body the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology, the current testing being done by the BRE is looking more comprehensively at combustibility throughout the external system – when previously cladding materials could be passed on the basis of their surface spread of flame being Class 0. This begs the question, have materials potentially been given an easy ride?

Approved Document B of the Regulations may be flawed in not explicitly stating that cladding should be of limited combustibility, but as Metcalfe told the BBC, “most have interpreted it to mean that it doesn’t have to be.” As he stressed though, focusing on the cladding may not be giving the full picture, when the whole external build-up could be equally relevant. What is not in doubt is that this tragedy is forcing unprecedented and welcome scrutiny onto how we specify our buildings.

There may also be much more to this than the building’s exterior, and the questions are as numerous as the theories. Why did the fire spread so quickly internally? Was the fire stopping between floors replaced effectively following the installation of the new heating system last year? At the time of writing, it is unclear that it was. The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower took place in 2016, following that a fire risk assessment was signed off by Kensington and Chelsea. This was in a context where if sufficient test data do not exist on products’ fire performance, and because Building Regulations have not been adequately updated, ‘desktop studies’ can be submitted to the Building Control approval. Reportedly, the NHBC has been accepting sub-A grade materials, based on previous desktop studies. Nothing here suggests a belt and braces, robust system, to say the least.

Theresa May has said that she wants a “major national investigation” into not just Grenfell but the use of cladding. While just investigating one material type will be a huge task, it’s a much broader issue than that – about how buildings are specified, and what has happened to our regulation system.

None of this conjecture is of any consolation to the victims’ families and friends. The least that they could expect is that the investigation is
pursued as deeply, transparently but also as rapidly as possible to give a real signal that the industry wants to take the initiative in avoiding further disasters.