The Grenfell tower fire, explained

GRENFELL Tower was first designed in 1967 by architecture practice Clifford Wearden and Associates, in the Brutalist style popularised during the era, and built between 1972-1974 by main contractor A E Symes.  

Shortly after the building’s opening, it began to be referred to as the ‘Moroccan Tower’, in reference to the high proportion of renters from the local Moroccan immigrant community.  

Several contemporary events had an impact on the construction and design of the tower, which was to form the first stage of a larger development known as Lancaster West Estate.

In 1961, Sir Parker Morris headed up the Parker Morris Report, an investigation into public housing space standards in the UK. Based on its conclusions, that a rise in living standards necessitated an improvement in the quality of social housing, a set of standards known as the Parker Morris Standards was drawn up.

The standards became mandatory for new towns in 1967 before being extended to all council housing two years later in 1969, which meant Grenfell Tower was built according to the Parker Morris Committee’s recommendations.

In 1968, a 22-storey tower block in East London named Ronan Point, for deputy mayor, Harry Ronan, was built as part of a wave of cheap tower blocks for the inhabitants of West Ham and other areas of London. Two months after construction completed, a gas explosion destroyed some of the building’s load bearing walls, causing the collapse of one corner, and ultimately leading to four deaths and 17 injuries.

The Griffith Enquiry, carried out in the aftermath of the disaster, determined that Ronan Point had been built to the current regulations, although it wasn’t deemed adequately protected against fire, explosion or wind. The building’s partial collapse led to major changes in building regulations, focusing particularly on ‘disproportionate collapse’, mandating that ‘the building shall be constructed so that in the event of an accident the building will not suffer collapse to an extent disproportionate to the cause’.

Responding directly to these new regulations, Grenfell Tower was reportedly built with strength in mind. Nigel Whitbread, the lead architect for the project described the structure in an interview as a ‘very simple and straightforward concept.                     

You have a central core containing the lift, staircase and the vertical risers for the services and then you have external perimeter columns. The services are connected to the central boiler and pump which powered the whole development, and this is located in the basement of the tower block. This basement is approximately four metres deep and in addition has two metres of concrete at its base. This foundation holds up the tower block and in situ concrete columns and slabs and pre-cast beams all tie the building together’

Plans were publicised in 2012 to renovate the tower, with Studio E Architects in charge of the design and Rydon, Artelia and Max Fordham contracted to carry the renovation out. The renovation formed part of an overall initiative to utilise the area around Lancaster Green, which included a new leisure centre along with football pitches to the north of Grenfell Tower which were later to become Kensington Academy. For the tower itself, the renovation would replace the substandard heating system, along with the windows, thereby increasing the thermal efficiency of the tower and improving its aesthetics simultaneously.

The renovation project was ultimately completed between 2015 and 2016, and saw Grenfell Tower receive both new windows and new composite rainscreen cladding. Reynobond PE and Reynolux cladding from Arconic were installed, beneath which and outside the walls of the flats Celotex RS5000 was additionally fixed. Harley Facades carried out this portion of the work at £2.6m, which formed one part of the overall £8.7m refurbishment project.

Despite the careful consideration given both to the building’s original construction and its latter-day refurbishment, the potential for danger at Grenfell Tower was recognised and documented by its residents long before disaster struck. Grenfell Action Group (GAG) was a residents’ organisation in the tower which published 10 warnings in the four years preceding the fire, highlighting the major safety problems inherent to the building’s design and maintenance. In 2013, the group published a report which had been undertaken a year prior, showing that the building was woefully underprepared for any fire risks. Equipment at the tower had been left without evaluation or replacement for four years, which resulted in the on-site fire extinguishers’ expiry, some even being labelled ‘condemned’.

The group attempted to contact KTCMO, the tenant management organisation in charge of the building, and additionally the council Cabinet Member for Housing and Property, however it received no reply. In fact, in lieu of responding to the claims, the council threatened legal action towards the group, alleging ‘harassment’ and ‘defamatory behaviour’.

Three years later, in January of 2016, GAG published a new warning on the fire risks of the tower and describing the KTCMO as an ‘evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia’. This report warned about the lack of entries and barriers to easy mobility within the building, making it a difficult environment to quickly evacuate in the event of a catastrophe.

The group suggested, in 2016, that ‘it won’t be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt the KTCMO management’ and that it would ‘do everything in [its] power to ensure that those in authority know how long and how appallingly [the] landlord has ignored their responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their tenants and leaseholders. They can’t say that they haven’t been warned!’

The following year, in the first hours of the morning 14 June, a fire broke out in the kitchen of one of Grenfell Tower’s fourth floor flats. By 3am, the fire had spread throughout the building and to the upper floors. The final death toll was 72.

The fire spread from the fourth floor upwards towards and across the north face of the tower. Less than 30 minutes after firefighters arrived at the scene, at 1:26am, mobile videos show the fire had spread to the top of the east side of the tower.

The design of Grenfell Tower’s interior was intended to contain any fire within one flat in the time it took firefighters to respond to the situation, which led to many residents being advised to remain in their flats by the emergency services. Said to have ‘substantially failed’, the ‘stay put’ policy led to these residents becoming trapped as the fire took hold and the building’s staircase filled with poisonous smoke.

This advice was abandoned at 2:47am, however of the residents who made it out of the building, only 36 escaped after the stay put guidance was rescinded. By 4:30am the entire tower was engulfed in fire, and it was not until 1:18am the following morning, a full 24 hours after the fire began, that it burned out.

Days later, on the 17th of June, Theresa May made a statement after meeting with Grenfell survivors: ‘I wanted to listen to their concerns and reassure them personally that the government is there for them - and that everything possible will be done to help them’. She confirmed the distribution of a £5m emergency fund had begun, and that residents affected would be rehoused within a fixed deadline of three weeks, before officially announcing the Public Inquiry.

During the Inquiry, it has been theorised the reason the fire spread so quickly can be at least partially accounted for by aspects of the tower’s renovation in 2016. Professor Luke Bisby, reporting to the Public Inquiry, said the evidence ‘strongly supports’ the notion that polyethylene material in the cladding was primarily responsible for the rapid spread. Additionally, vertical cavities within the cladding structure were suggested to play a role, along with the insulation and a number of other pre-renovation flammable materials, including a polyurethane polymer foam insulation board. Other factors the Public Inquiry pointed to as relevant were the smoke extraction system, which was not working, and insufficient water supply due to the lack of a ‘wet riser’ in the building. Exposed gas pipes installed in 2016 and doors which didn’t meet current fire resistance standards continued to paint a picture of a building utterly unprepared to deal with fire risk.

Criticism of the renovation did not cease at its material aspects, but extended towards the planning and execution stages as well. According to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a ‘full plans decision notice’ was not issued for the renovation project and instead a ‘completion certificate’ was issued. The former is said to be the most thorough option indicating compliance with building regulations, and requests as to why this was not procured have gone unanswered by both the borough and Harley Facades. Additionally, specific product selection has been scrutinised, with the refurbishment’s insulation being shown to contain polyisocyanurate, a material which can release rapidly lethal fumes when burned in intense fires. Fears over persistent toxicity in the air were however assuaged by Public Health England which asserted while all smoke is toxic and could have caused harm to those close to the scene, there was no evidence of additional harmful fumes later on.

After the Public Inquiry was announced, Rydon Group ceo Robert Bond released a statement which asserted its role in the ‘partial refurbishment of the building’ had ‘met all required building regulations - as well as fire regulation and Health & Safety standards’. Managing director of Harley Facades, Ray Bailey, released a statement also bemoaning the ‘incredibly tragic incident’ while arguing that ‘at this time, [the company was] not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower’. The company released a further statement which contended ‘The Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) panels are a commonly used product in the refurbishment industry. Harley Facades Limited do not manufacture these panels.’

Unsurprisingly, these statements, along with those of the government, did little to sooth a confused, bereaving and angry public. Contrary to the PM’s claims that rehousing survivors would be accomplished within three weeks, 9 months after the fire just 62 of 209 households had moved into permanent new accommodation, and home secretary Sajid Javid said it was ‘unlikely that all households [would] be permanently rehoused by the one-year anniversary of the fire’, adding that ‘It’s very understandable that the people of north Kensington will feel disappointed and let down’. The junior shadow housing and communities minister Tony Lloyd responded, saying the government’s ‘promise has been abysmally failed’.

The national conversation over the Grenfell Tower fire continues to occupy news cycles in 2019, as the second anniversary of the disaster fast approaches, and wide-ranging concerns over not only construction, but the social fabric of the country itself have been raised in that time.

It was reported that prior to the disaster, an investigation carried out by government building safety experts had already cautioned that there was an ‘increase in the volume of potentially combustible materials’ being applied to buildings as a result of insulation innovation. The Reynobond cladding used in the exterior refurbishment of Grenfell tower in 2016 consisted of powder-coated aluminium panels filled with flammable plastic insulation.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, 95 buildings from 32 different local authorities were tested and found to be ‘potentially dangerous’. By June 2018 it was reported that 470 high-rise buildings in the UK featured cladding of the same style as Grenfell, putting them and their residents at similar risk of catastrophe.

The viability and safety of high-rise buildings, in particular for social housing, has been questioned too, although architects and engineers have argued the structures remain safe as long as they are designed and built properly.

Architects have expressed particular concern that owing to lack of enforcement, there’s potential for contractors to deviate from specifications, suggesting unscrupulous actors could be using cheaper materials at the cost of their buildings’ overall safety and integrity.

Debates over social inequality have also been reignited since the disaster, with Labour figures such as David Lammy arguing that rather than a random tragedy, Grenfell should be viewed as a case of corporate manslaughter. The MP suggested that ‘the richest borough in our country treating its citizens in this way’ is ‘an outrage’. Grenfell, and the Kensington and Chelsea borough in which it still stands, have become a symbol of the widening social divide in Britain between the wealthy and poor.

The Trust for London charitable foundation revealed that while there were higher than average levels of poverty and reliance on benefits in the borough, the mean household income was the highest in London, at £116,000. Research by the same organisation had previously identified Kensington and Chelsea as the capital’s ‘most polarised borough’.

Lammy further stated that the Grenfell disaster presented a ‘window into the lives of one group of the population that relies absolutely on the state for where they live, the conditions in which they live, and safety and security’.

In the Telegraph however, Christopher Booker argued blame for the tragedy ought to be attributed not to domestic inequality, but rather to a relaxing of fire safety regulation on the part of the European Union. He alleged that the British Standard in place for testing claddings’ fire safety, BS8414, could not be made mandatory under EU directives, asserting: ‘the fact is if the BRE’s BS8414 test had been properly applied – as subsequent demonstrations confirmed – that dreadful conflagration would never have happened’.

It was later reported on an episode of BBC’s
Panorama that the insulation actually used at Grenfell had never passed safety regulations, as it contained less of a flame-retardant material the manufacturer incorporated into the insulation which was tested.

This report highlighted the way manufacturers can circumvent safety testing and regulations in isolated lab conditions, which has led to accusations that BS8414 is in fact an inadequate testing method. It’s alleged further there could be a conflict of interest since the panel who originally wrote the standard included representatives from the plastic foam insulation industry.

Grenfell United is a group formed in the aftermath of the disaster, comprised of survivors of the tragedy along with the bereaved, and has spent the months since June 2017 campaigning for justice and a redress of social inequality more broadly.

Among the group’s stated aims are ‘a change in culture’ and ‘remembrance’, and while it couldn’t be argued that issues of wealth inequality and inadequacies in public housing have been solved, the national conversation has been invigorated and remains ongoing.

It’s difficult to imagine the events of Grenfell leaving the public memory, particularly as increasing numbers of public figures, such as Adele and Stormzy, draw attention to the continuing needs of the community.

Other goals the group has identified are ‘safe homes for everyone’ and ‘justice for the 72 lives lost’, arguing on its website for ‘dangerous combustible material to be removed from homes’ and asserting there will be ‘no stone left unturned’ in the public inquiry.   

Ultimately, in October 2018, government announced a ban on all combustible cladding on buildings over 18m high. The ban hasn’t been applied retroactively, although government has begun a £400m project to remove Grenfell-style cladding from high-rise social housing blocks and has further advised private blocks with the cladding to remove and replace it.

Campaigning from groups such as Grenfell United was credited by Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad for helping propel this measure.

Phase 1 of the Public Inquiry, launched to establish the facts of exactly how the fire took hold and caused the damage it did, concluded in December 2018. According to the official Grenfell Tower Inquiry website, Phase 2 of the investigation has been well underway for about 12 months, although the vast quantity of documents which require examination aren’t expected to be processed until at least autumn this year.

It’s expected the Phase 2 hearings, examining the decisions and actions which led to the disaster, are ‘unlikely’ to begin until 2020. Until then, Grenfell’s survivors and the country as a whole will wait. But the events of 14 June 2017 will echo in the national memory long after the investigation’s conclusions are reached, as one of the darkest hours in British history.