While we are all shocked and distressed and wish to convey our sincere condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in Grenfell Tower, it is true that for many in the fire sector, such a tragedy was not entirely unexpected. The incident highlights a number of concerns regarding fire safety in the built environment and demonstrates how vigilant we must all be when designing, supplying and installing fire protection in buildings.
Compartmentation and structural fire protection play a vital role in protecting escape routes and slowing the spread of fire and smoke. But there can be tragic consequences which may ensue if such systems are not adequately specified, installed and maintained; or are bypassed by rapid fire spread outside the building, as appears to have happened at Grenfell Tower.
Several warnings and near-misses have been ignored in recent years, with the prevailing culture in the construction industry being one of ‘cheapest is best’ at the design stage and poor workmanship or inappropriate specification seldom picked up during construction and refurbishment. Six people paid the price of this culture at Lakanal House and we are yet to discover how many in total were lost at Grenfell.
Following Lakanal, Southwark Council was issued with a £570,000 fine having been found guilty of multiple fire safety offences. There was no fire risk assessment under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005; suspended ceilings were in a poor state of repair and not constructed in a way or made of materials that would stop a fire from spreading; and parts of the construction of the building failed to adequately provide barriers to smoke and fire, with sealing to fire escape doors and flat doors inadequate.
In various refurbishments that were carried out over the years, vital fire protection to stairs within flats was not reinstated properly to separate them from corridors underneath and running perpendicular to them, allowing fire spread between escape routes and individual flats. And, as appears to be the case at Grenfell, new facades to the outside of individual flats were provided with materials which were more flammable than those they replaced.
But, unfortunately, these two incidents are not that out of the ordinary. The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) has untold examples of poorly constructed flats, hospitals and schools. Only last year, it was luck not judgment that meant that no children were injured or killed following the collapse of part of an external wall at Oxgangs Primary School, Edinburgh.
The collapse was due to incorrect installation of wall ties between the outer brick leaf and the internal construction. Similar defects were replicated in the installation of fire-stopping, with the Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools finding problems in 16 other schools in Edinburgh.
And as yet more UK tower blocks are found to be wrapped in inappropriate combustible cladding and insulation, the investigation into how the building’s construction contributed to the rapid fire spread continues, the construction industry must ask where things went wrong. Is it an over-reliance on the ‘cheapest is best’ culture which has resulted in such poor levels of design, maintenance, unrestricted alterations and a lack of diligence and process during refurbishment and construction? Or is it a failure of robust regulations and the approval process which has allowed an inappropriate system to be used? These are big questions for the public inquiry.
It was the unequivocal view of the inquiry in Scotland that there were fundamental and widespread failures from the various contractors and sub-contractors, who built or oversaw the building of the schools. They failed to identify and rectify both the defective and inadequate construction of walls and the provision of adequate fire-stopping.
One can only conclude that those responsible for the supervision and quality assurance of the work either did not inspect the work adequately or did inspect it and failed to take appropriate action to have it removed or remedied.
The ASFP believes it is now incumbent upon the construction industry to develop and promulgate best practice methods that can be relied upon to provide the necessary level of assurance.
Working with stakeholders from across the entire construction industry, the ASFP has been leading an initiative to ensure that fire protection is considered throughout the life of a building from design, through to construction and fit-out to the building once in occupation.
The ASFP is developing an overarching Construction Strategy to encourage collaborative working across the whole design and build process to improve the quality of installed fire protection within the built environment. Key to this is introducing fire protection into the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Plan of Works to ensure that there is a detailed specification for fire protection in initial building designs, and throughout the construction process. This aims to ensure that fire protection measures are correctly designed, specified, installed and inspected to make buildings safer for everyone.
The Grenfell tragedy shows that there is a need to change the culture and the processes within the construction industry. Without such a change we cannot rule out further construction failures or future tragedies.
The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) was formed in 1975 in recognition of a need to bring together passive fire protection manufacturers, contractors and testing/certification bodies to encourage, develop and give guidance on essential standards in passive fire protection.
The association reflects a diversity of expertise in the fields of fire-stopping, fire-resisting ducting, fire dampers, fire-resisting partitions and all elements used for compartmentation.
For 40 years, the ASFP has either taken the lead or maintained a significant input into developing the vast majority of guidance and standards that exist today across the whole spectrum of the passive fire protection sector. In recent years, the ASFP has progressively broadened its membership and remit to reflect and respond to the significant changes and challenges within the fire sector and the built environment in terms of technical innovation, regulatory direction, the changing political dimension, evolving commercial forces and geographic expansion of the industry.