By Elliot Blair Smith, MarketWatch
Once the Grenfell Tower landlord in London agreed to substitute cheaper construction materials to renovate the 120-apartment building, a death trap was set waiting to be sprung.
In June, an uncontrollable inferno at the 24-story public housing complex took at least 80 lives. Two parallel investigations are now under way: a criminal probe by the Metropolitan Police, and a broader public inquiry by a retired judge.
The true purpose of building-safety standards is not to inflate costs—not to impose barriers to getting work done, nor to keep people from being compensated fairly—but rather to protect people. The Grenfell Tower tragedy exposed woefully inadequate building and fire-safety codes in Britain, and much wider haste to cut corners. And that lesson is lost in most arguments about rolling back regulations broadly, in the United States and elsewhere.
“The disaster at Grenfell Tower should never have happened,” said Sajid Javid, Britain’s secretary of state for communities and local government, before Parliament. “It is already clear to us all that there will need to be changes.”
For years, residents of Grenfell Tower contended with cold, drafty winters, and stiflingly hot summers. Renovation to dress up the aging concrete building—including a new aluminum skin, and windows—would better insulate it from rain, cold, and the beating sun.
So about $13.5 million was targeted to improve the “poor condition” of the apartment complex between 2014 and 2016, according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea , the neighborhood authority in one of London’s wealthiest districts.
The work was loud, and tensions emerged among tenants who’d complained first about substandard conditions, and then about allegedly being kept uninformed. But authorities conducted a “door knocking” poll in December 2015—close to project completion—and found most occupants happy with the improvements to the heating, hot water, and new windows.
While there’s a shambling charm to a tenant-landlord relationship that resolves complaints with a “door knocking,” it reflects a civic casualness that contributed to the uncontained blaze that turned the tower into a flaming skewer. Police now believe “there are reasonable grounds to suspect” that the borough and the tenant management organization “may have committed the offense of corporate manslaughter,” the BBC and others reported last week.
Three years earlier, plans for fire-resistant exterior cladding were quietly replaced with a less expensive product; and the fire-retardant core proposed for each two-sheet aluminum panel was swapped out with a cheaper combustible alternative, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Guardian newspaper reported . Final project costs came down by $2.1 million.
In the balance, one might calculate the value of human life.
Celia Caliskan, an assistant to the Kensington and Chelsea neighborhood authority’s housing director, referred my query to the borough’s press office, which didn’t respond.
British authorities have now tested at least 181 aluminum-veneer high-rises. “So far, all the samples of cladding tested have failed—that is 181 out of 181,” Javid told Parliament, with about 400 more buildings to be tested.
Yet British authorities, builders, and citizens can’t seem to agree—and probably don’t know—whether the Grenfell Tower renovation met national fire-safety standards. Even if each building product individually met code requirements, it’s not clear they did so in combination.
What seems certain is the cladding was more combustible than anyone admitted, and became a chimney spreading flames, heat, and fumes faster than firefighters could chase them.
Michele Gianeselli, senior fire engineer at Chemolli Fire, an Italian fire-safety consultant licensed to do business in the United Kingdom, told me that aluminum cladding with a plastic core—sometimes called sandwich board—combined with plastic-foam insulation between the building and veneer, is “very cheap” and “easy to use” but will “increase the fire risk.”
Even a British cladding trade group that previously argued against imposing supposedly cost-prohibitive fire-safety standards now offers stricter guidance.
New York-based Arconic /zigman2/quotes/216391721/composite ARNC -0.97% supplied the Grenfell Tower veneer through a sub-contractor on the project, and announced after the fire that it no longer will sell the product for any other high-rise construction. The company was formerly known as Alcoa, which it spun off last year as a separate company.