Saturday, 17 June 2017

A Needless Tragedy

According to Wikipedia Leonardo De Vinci designed a sprinkler system in the 15th century. Da Vinci automated his patron's kitchen with a super-oven and a system of conveyor belts. In a comedy of errors, everything went wrong during a huge banquet, and a fire broke out. "The sprinkler system worked all too well, causing a flood that washed away all the food and a good part of the kitchen."

The Americans then reinvented the idea in the 1870s and started installing sprinklers in their public buildings.

The first tower blocks were built in Britain in 1951.

Why then was it not both possible and a mandatory requirement to install sprinkler systems in all blocks from the very first? It must have been crystal clear that a fire in one flat posed a risk to all other flats in such a building and a risk to the entire structure itself. In addition fire retardant materials were in their infancy in the 1950s and fire alarms, at best, rudimentary.

Aside from the risk of tragedy, there would also be the likelihood of scores of survivors who would need immediate re-housing, as is now the case following what is being described as 'the greatest loss of civilian life in Britain during peace time since WWII'  (70 fatalities confirmed so far with many more individuals still missing). Even before we had a 'national housing crisis', this would have been a real challenge, let alone managing to re-house all the survivors in the same area.

The lack of a sprinkler system in Grenfell Tower was only the start of the horror though. The block did not even have a working fire alarm and nor did the residents seem to ever have known a fire drill. There was also no Fire Certificate. Perhaps worst of all, once the fire was underway, the emergency services started giving out the standard large building advice to 'Stay where you are and await rescue' (advice I have always found profoundly stupid in my career in buildings management). Sadly many residents obeyed and stayed in their flats, only to perish. People who could have lived had they got out the moment they were aware the block was on fire. How in reality would they have been rescued anyway? The PVC windows were fusing in the heat on many flats, there were no balconies and the heat of the fire prohibited helicopters going anywhere near enough to rescue anyone. However many residents (if awoken) would have been unable to see the scale of the fire until it actually reached them, so it is not their fault that they decided to stay dutifully put, assuming it was an isolated flat fire which would be dealt with. The lucky ones were those who listened to their instincts and were in a position to be able to escape from the lower floors just in time, much as there were some horror stories of the single stairwell being blocked by people trying to hump suitcases down with them.

To compound everything, it now emerges that this whole tragedy could have been the result of an aggressive carbon reduction initiative requiring all old blocks to be refurbished at great expense with new boilers, windows and exterior cladding, cladding which far from being fire retardant, appears on film to be acting as an accelerant and combining with the vents underneath to create a 'chimney effect' spreading the fire at a horrifying rate. Indeed these panels have already been banned in the US and Germany, not just owing to their fire weakness, but to the toxic fumes they give off when burning, which can also cause injury and death.

Strange how Green Issues were considered more of a priority than basic fire safety provision and coroner recommendations regarding sprinkler systems following the deadly Lakanal block fire in 2009 had been sat on since 2013. There is also no requirement to retrofit the older blocks with sprinkler systems as all blocks erected post-2007 are required to have. Allegedly fewer than 1% of council and former-council blocks possess a sprinkler system and there are many thousands of such blocks throughout the country, at least 50% of which have now had similar cladding fitted to help meet local authority green targets. To retrofit sprinklers to all is said to be 'impractical' and 'economically unviable', even though the money was found to refurbish the buildings to meet green standards without evacuating the tenants (a friend in Coventry has just been subjected to such inconvenience which took nearly two years and left a lot of shoddy snagging works to be dealt with after).

The Grenfell Action Group residents had repeatedly tried to raise issues about fire safety in the block with their benevolent-sounding management company Kensington and Chelsea Tenant's Management Organisation (KCTMO), but their concerns fell on deaf ears. They also took up their fears with their local MP and the Fire Brigade and were desperately trying to get an enforcement order placed on the building.

Having worked in buildings management for some years, I am entirely on the side of the tenants. I once administered a historic wood-framed former hotel in the middle of Oxford which dated from 1474. It was a huge rabbit warren of a building comprising around 100 rooms with many floors and roofs at crazy angles. Our Surveyor had his work cut out to install a fully-addressable fire alarm system throughout the winding corridors and landings and work out complicated maps of fire escape from each room. On the plus side it was only 4 storeys tall and had at least half a dozen fire exits into internal courtyards and onto the roof. For many years there was a live link to the local fire station so that if the fire alarm went off, it would automatically summon the fire brigade owing to the nature of the building.  I remember how horrified we were when the Fire Brigade cut this link saying we now had to take full responsibility for our own Fire Risk Assessments and for calling out the Brigade ourselves in the event of fire. As a result of this the College had to provide a 24-hour Porter's Lodge as we couldn't afford to take any risks and our insurance wouldn't insure the building otherwise.

While it is suspected the Grenfell fire was originally started by a faulty fridge in a flat on the fourth floor, it will take time for a Public Enquiry to get underway and possibly several years for a full investigation of the entire sequence of events and factors to be completed and the results to be known, let alone for the appropriate heads to roll over this tragedy, preferably with corporate manslaughter sentences ensuing. 

Meanwhile anger is building and it looks increasingly likely this could result in a riot in the richest area of London. Wealthy 21st Century philanthropists; now is your moment if you want to show you care, to open your mansions, wallets and hearts, offer your spare rooms and you could potentially avert the start of a great civil unrest in the capital. A 'war' between rich and poor to put it crudely. Do you really want another Brixton riots in Kensington?

On a final note let's have no more tower blocks in the future as they will never be 100% safe to live in, never mind the enablers of social cohesion, equality, good health and upward mobility their utopian socialist devisors once dreamed in the days when the first residents were only too happy to enjoy the luxury of an indoor bathroom for the first time, after being re-housed from insanitary slums.

Let's have mansion blocks for all -  a proven model of safe, healthy, high density urban living. And with an average lifespan of 200 years, these dwellings are about as sustainable in their carbon construction footprint (a factor conveniently overlooked in this throwaway world) as buildings get. 60% of high rise blocks built pre-1975 have now demolished and few even made it to the 50 year mark before being deemed 'unfit for purpose' and condemned. 

*Edinburgh is a good example of a historically high density city. Granite being so hard to cut in olden times that they had to make the most of every block by building tenement style dwellings from the outset. Another advantage of Granite is that it is one of the best natural fire retardant building materials there is and good at containing fires.

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