Grenfell Tower – The Turning Point

What has changed since the tragic tower block fire?

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In June 2017, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a reinforced concrete, 23-storey tower block dating from 1974, that forms part of the Lancaster West Housing Estate in Notting Dale, West London. The severity of the blaze engulfing the building, witnessed by shocked onlookers at the scene and in front of TVs around the world, meant that it did not burn out until 24 hours later. Seventy-one people perished that terrible night; the youngest being a 6-month old baby.

I lived not far from the district on Ladbroke Grove in the 1990s, enjoying the sound systems and visual exuberance of the Notting Hill Carnival every August Bank Holiday, a hugely popular manifestation of the rich cultural life of the area. I last witnessed the Tower when I visited nearby Latimer Road tube station tomeet the director of a local art organisation six months before the unfolding of this unspeakable tragedy.

For the last 40 years the neighbourhood has been one of the 10% most deprived areas in the UK, yet it is not far from the homes of many of the richest residents in the country.

Grenfell was home to a close-knit, multi-cultural community; some 350 people living in 127 one and two bedroom flats, laid out six per floor.

The police confirmed that the fire started in a fridge-freezer on the north-west corner of the building. It seems to have then quickly spread out of a window, and started to heat the building’s cladding and the insulation above it, which set off a chain reaction, as fire behind the panels was inaccessible to water. A vertical wind tunnel effect led to the whole structure becoming engulfed in flames in the ensuing hours. As one resident put it, Grenfell ‘went up like a matchstick’.

Made of 0.5mm thick aluminium sheets fixed to a 6mm-thick core of polyethelene, samples from the cladding failed all the flammability tests performed after the fire, yet the same type of cladding had been commonly applied to buildings over 18 metres before the tragedy. On top of this, the building’s emergency lift and smoke extraction system failed, creating a very congested stairwell full of thick toxic smoke.

Grenfell tower fire
The Grenfell Tower on Fire. Image @Alamy

Back in 2014, an £8.7m refurbishment of the building was carried out, which included adding a new ‘face’ for an ‘improved appearance’. This left a gap between the cladding and the concrete walls: a void through which smoke and fire could spread. How could this happen when more than 60 different organisations and subcontractors were involved in the refurbishment?

As the charity Architects for Social Change has pointed out, ‘a building is the sum of its parts, and works holistically.’

‘Any changes to its constituent components will therefore alter the fire strategies that are intrinsic to the design of the cladding’. It has become clear that the new panels and their flammable insulation, and lack of self-closing fire doors, compromised the original compartments of the building (walls, floors and doors) making fire stops and seals ineffective. The fire alarm system and the emergency lights on the fire escape route also did not operate. What turned out to be tragic advice followed by many Grenfell residents to ‘stay put’ in the event of fire was based on the assumption this compartmentalisation would prevent the spread of fire throughout the building.

Since the fire, research has revealed the horrible truth that many more homes in the UK face the same danger. Three hundred and twenty-three council-run tower blocks have been fitted with non-compliant cladding, and over a hundred have the same combustible cladding as Grenfell. Councils have also found 470 towers in the private sector were clad in combustible materials. In May 2018, the UK government announced that it would pay councils and housing associations around £400m to remove hazardous cladding, and in September, it warned that private landlords and developers failing to do so could be fined or barred from future government funding.

Grenfell is ‘the catastrophic consequence of a profoundly dysfunctional system’, according to Teresa Borsuk, senior partner of architects Pollard Thomas Edwards. The culture of procurement of buildings, building maintenance and value engineering (cost cutting) of housing has become fragmented and adversarial. The integrated ‘design and build’ process can mean a loss of quality as contractors look to strip down cost, as well as exclude architects from the construction process, whose duty of care is badly needed at all times. Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor and fire safety expert who has been calling for improved fire safety regulations in the UK for years, maintains that ‘certificates and claims by manufacturers cannot be trusted – test reports should be made freely available.’

Before 1985, there were 306 pages of building regulations, but then, under Margaret Thatcher’s government, they were reduced to 24. In the early 1990s combustible materials were banned from high-rises, but today they are commonly used, and proper fire doors, windows and balconies are not universally installed. Since Grenfell there has been an ongoing dispute on what building regulations did and did not allow.

Memorial at the Grenfell Tower site
Memorial at the Grenfell Tower site. Image by Jenny Mathews

In July 2018 the government announced it would retain control over Grenfell Tower. A joint statement signed by the Council, the Grenfell United Group and the Lancaster West Residents Association was issued stating that the community will lead decision-making on what happens to the Grenfell Tower site, and its future ownership will be transferred to a body that represents the bereaved and survivors. The character of the overall neighbourhood will change so that community life can thrive, said the statement, as Council will take forward improvements to the wider Lancaster West estate, but it pledged to do so in ways that do not negatively impact the commemorative aspect of the site.

Fortunately a new boxing gym and community centre to replace ones located at the foot of Grenfell Tower as part of its recent refurbishment but destroyed in the fire were opened in the summer. Locals were consulted on their needs for the new spaces, designed by architects Featherstone Young with interiors by Gabrielle Blackman. They were built at rapid speed, thanks to coordinated donations of specialist labour, volunteer support and materials. Even Prince William, a resident of nearby Kensington Palace, helped paint a wall during a visit.

Grenfell is a sickening symbol of the UK government’s long-term negligence of social housing and its residents’ welfare, and its adherence to an agenda of deregulation, including the privatisation of building control. This influenced hands-off management structures, which failed Grenfell’s residents. Tragically, although they repeatedly raised concerns about fire safety issues over a number of years, nothing was done. The fire is a huge wake up call for the immediate reform of the system. It puts into sharp relief the need to make wider changes to the ways in which social housing is provided, and the need to stop their stigmatisation. It is shocking also to think that Grenfell could also have happened in any other borough, anywhere in the country with high rise buildings.

In August 2018 the UK government published a Green Paper outlining its vision for and renewed commitment to social housing. Grenfell ‘should never have happened’, it said, and must mark a turning point in how the country thinks and talks about social housing’.

In the aftermath of Grenfell, it hardly surprising that there has been a hardening of opinion by residents across London against being housed in taller buildings. But this does not mean that social housing estates need full-scale demolition. It is essential that existing social housing stock is scrupulously and democratically regenerated and maintained, and the process properly scrutinised. Grenfell must stay in our hearts and in our minds to lead the change and renewal of systemic values and commitments for housing provision and maintenance so urgently needed.

Main Image by Alex McNaughton