Grenfell inquiry report condemns cladding refurbishment


October 31, 2019 – The first report of the official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire has now been published, with urgent lessons for the construction industry and building materials firms as well as the London Fire Brigade.

Today’s report is the conclusion of phase one of the inquiry led by Sir Martin Moore-Blick, which focuses primarily on the events of 14th June 2017, how the fire started in the west London tower block and how the emergency services responded.

The report explains in great detail the refurbishment of the tower block that completed in 2016. It was the choice of cladding insulation materials, how they were combined and how they were installed that led to the fire spreading so quickly, leading to 72 lives being lost.

The fire brigade’s policy of telling residents to stay put was also a contributing factor.

Phase two of the inquiry, starting in January, will really put the parties involved in the refurbishment under the microscope, and indeed the whole UK construction industry leadership involved in the setting and policing of standards.

The fire was started by an electrical fault in a large fridge-freezer in the kitchen of Flat 16, for which the resident bears no blame, Sir Martin says.

“I have not been able to establish the precise nature of the fault in the fridge -freezer, but consider that to be of less importance than establishing how the failure of a common domestic appliance could have had such disastrous consequences,” he writes. “The fire is most likely to have entered the cladding as a result of hot smoke impinging on the uPVC window jamb, causing it to deform and collapse and thereby provide an opening into the cavity between the insulation and the ACM cladding panels through which flames and hot gases could pass. It is, however, possible (but less likely) that flames from the fire in the fridge-freezer passed through the open kitchen window and impinged on the ACM cladding panels above.”

Sir Martin Moore-Blick writes in the phase one report: “There was compelling evidence that the external walls of the building failed to comply with Requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010, in that they did not adequately resist the spread of fire having regard to the height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it. It will be necessary in Phase 2 to examine why those who were responsible for the design of the refurbishment considered that the tower would meet that essential requirement.”

He says that “there are grounds for thinking that the current regime for testing the combustibility of materials and cladding systems, particularly those chosen for use in high-rise buildings, may be neither as rigorous nor as effectively enforced as it should be”.

He also says, in effect, that building contractors can no longer take at face value the claims made by product manufacturers. One of the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire, Sir Martin suggests, is that building products may not be as good or effective as their manufacturers claim.

He writes: “Doubts have also arisen about the reliability of the certification of certain materials for use in high-rise buildings. Grave concern inevitably arises simply from the fact that it was possible for highly combustible materials to be used for the purposes of refurbishing and cladding a building like Grenfell Tower. How that was possible is a question that may be relevant to many aspects of the construction industry, including manufacturers of products currently widely available on the market. Pending further investigation it would clearly be sensible for anyone who is responsible for the fire safety of an existing building or who is considering the use of products on high-rise buildings to scrutinise the information about them provided by the manufacturers and exercise considerable care to ensure that they meet the required standards.”

Sir Martin also adds his voice to concerns that have already been widely voiced about the scandalously slow progress in replacing similarly lethal cladding systems on other tall buildings around the country.

He writes: “It is clear that the use of combustible materials in the external wall of Grenfell Tower, principally in the form of the ACM rainscreen cladding, but also in the form of combustible insulation, was the reason why the fire spread so quickly to the whole of the building. Surveys undertaken since the fire have established that external wall materials similar to those used on Grenfell Tower have been used on over 400 other high-rise residential buildings around the country. From the evidence put before me in Phase 1, two very important matters have come to light: first, that in its origin the fire at Grenfell Tower was no more than a typical kitchen fire; second, that the fire was able to spread into the cladding as a result of the proximity of combustible materials to the kitchen windows. It is not possible to say whether the same or a similar combination of design and materials is to be found on any other buildings, but it would be sensible for those responsible for high-rise buildings with similar cladding systems, if they have not already done so, to check whether the same or a similar combination exists. However, even if they do not, fires can occur in a wide variety of circumstances and in cases where the exterior walls of the building include combustible materials of a similar kind, might gain access to it by a variety of different routes. It is not surprising, therefore, that people living in such buildings are concerned for their safety. It is unnecessary for me to recommend that panels with polyethylene cores on the exterior of high-rise buildings be removed as soon as possible and replaced with materials of limited combustibility because it is accepted that that must be done. It is essential that it be done as quickly as possible and concern has been voiced publicly, most recently by the House of Commons Communities & Local Government Select Committee, about the apparently slow rate of progress in carrying out the work. In the light of what has been learnt in Phase 1 about the behaviour of ACM panels with polyethylene cores when exposed to fire, I wish to add my voice to that of the committee in expressing the view that the programme of remedial work should be pursued as vigorously as possible. In view of the part played by the architectural crown in the spread of the fire at Grenfell Tower, particular attention must be paid to decorative features composed of combustible materials.”

Sir Martin Moore-Blick’s report praises the courage of the fire fighters who tried to tackle the blaze but was critical of the London Fire Brigade’s systemic failings, its adherence to the ‘stay put’ policy and apparent failure to learn lessons from the July 2009 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell.

However, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, retorted: “The inquiry’s structure prioritises scrutiny of firefighters, who did everything that they could to save lives, over investigating the critical issues of public safety that led to the fire and caused it to spread in such a disastrous manner.

“Before any firefighter arrived that night, Grenfell Tower was a death trap. Firefighters that night acted bravely in impossible circumstances, many of them repeatedly risking their own lives to save others. We welcome that this is reflected in the inquiry’s report.

“The true culprits of the fire are those who wrapped the building in flammable cladding, who gutted the UK’s fire safety regime, who ignored the warnings from previous fires, and who did not hear the pleas of a community worried for their safety. We will be watching phase two of the Inquiry closely to ensure they are held to account. But we cannot wait for years for the Inquiry to conclude. Change is needed now.”



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