Fire in the hold

For want of a nail the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of the horse the rider was lost, For want of the rider the battle was lost
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail

It makes for very sobering reading. The report from building standards experts BRE into the Grenfell fire, leaked to the Evening Standard this week, shows what can happen when the ball is dropped at every single stage of the process.

After the fire, many questions were being asked, including, how was it possible that a single fridge-freezer could have caused an inferno of such magnitude that it caused 70 people to lose their lives and many, many more to be made homeless.

It turns out that it wasn’t just the fridge freezer’s fault. That may well have been where the flames began, but it was a catalogue of bad decisions, changed specifications, badly installed materials that meant the fire travelled further, faster and more fiercely than it ever should have done.

The problem, it seems, was not in the design of the building itself, nor the original construction. Rather, the blame is being laid firmly at the feet of the renovation which took place between 2014 and 2016

The first, most damning, conclusion of the report is that the fire would not have spread beyond its point zero in Flat 16 had the original facade of the building had not been re-clad.

Approved Document B of the Building Regulations sets out fire safety standards. The refurbishment failed to meet these standards in what the report calls “several fundamental areas” and contributed to the rapid spread of flames across the length and breadth of the building.

Also wrong were the new windows. They were too narrow, and the gaps between them ended up being filled with materials that weren’t sufficiently fire resistant. Cavity barriers were also too small, creating a “chimney-like effect” between the inner and outer skin of the building. Some of them were even badly installed, so they didn’t work in the first place. Much has already been written about the aluminium panels and insulation used in the facade which were respectively found to be “highly combustible” and “combustible”.

The Evening Standard’s full article on the whole report is here. It’s not a comfortable read.

The Daily Mail can harrumph all it likes about over-crowding, illegal sub-letting and tenants blocking doorways and corridors with rubbish and fire hazards, the simple fact is that, had the refurbishment been carried out more competently, that fridge-freezer fire should never, ever have spread beyond Flat 16. End of.

Questions that need to be asked and answered are what was it about the refurbishment that was so at odds with the fire safety standards of the original build? Was it all about cutting costs? Was it incompetence? Or shameless negligence?  Or was it just really bad communication.

Whatever the answers are, whenever we get them, one thing is clear. All in all, it was a cock-up of monumental proportions and it had catastrophic consequences. Good products, badly installed and people died. For heaven’s sake let’s hope the lessons are learned.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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