LONDON — Grenfell Tower was intended to be among the jewels of an $85 million (£67 million) urban regeneration scheme carried out by the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
But on Wednesday, as an enormous fire gutted the 24-story residential block, a series of questions were raised about its safety.
A local residents’ group had repeatedly expressed concerns about fire safety, going back several years. The company that manages the tower on behalf of the local authority had placed fire safety policy across all of its housing stock under review. Questions were raised about a recent refurbishment, which had included a replacement of the cladding on the outside of the building. Residents said they made multiple complaints, although the principal contractor said all building and safety regulations had been met.
Originally constructed in 1974, the residential tower block had recently undergone a massive $13.2M (£10.3M) refurbishment carried out by private developers Rydon and completed in the summer of 2016.
According to the local authority’s website, these large-scale works included the installation of “insulated exterior cladding, new double-glazed windows and a new communal heating system, with the goal of improving energy efficiency.”
Notably, redevelopment of the building included provisions for improvements to the “smoke/fire safety and ventilation works.”
Warnings of ‘catastrophe’
However, in a blog post dated November 20, 2016, a residents group, the Grenfell Action Group (GAC), highlighted ongoing concerns among residents over the safety of the building, managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO) on behalf of the borough.
The blog post, published after completion of the refurbishment work, argued that only “a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord … and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”
The post was the latest in a series that dated back to 2013. “We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO,” the post read.
In a statement on Wednesday, the management company acknowledged residents’ concerns. “It is too early to speculate what caused the fire and contributed to its spread. We will cooperate fully with all the relevant authorities in order to ascertain the cause of this tragedy.”
“We are aware that concerns have been raised historically by residents. We always take all concerns seriously and these will form part of our forthcoming investigations.”
Rapid spread of fire
The London Fire Brigade said Wednesday’s fire began on the lower floors and spread quickly upwards.
Terry O’Neil, former head of fire engineering at the London Fire Brigade, told CNN that the fire in the building appears to have “spread rapidly from the outside of the building”, which was “very unusual.”
Christopher J P Miers, an architect and founder of the construction dispute resolution group Probyn Miers, said it was “very concerning” that the fire was able spread so quickly through the building’s façade.
Online records show that the company responsible for cladding the building’s exterior, Harley Facades Limited, installed “over-cladding with ACM cassette rainscreen.”
Miers suggested that the investigation would focus on the ACM (aluminum composite material) panels, what’s behind them, and whether the entire exterior wall was constructed to the standards required by the building code.
Mike Gilmartin, director of Omega Fire Engineering Limited, said that investigators would concentrate on how the fire spread so fast. “The question has to be asked how was it able to do so and within a short period of time,” he said.
“Of a building of that height we would expect the insulation in the external wall build-up to be of ‘limited combustibility’. While it may not have been present in the original construction, consideration should have been given to installing this in the recent refurb.”
‘Not appropriate to speculate’
Ray Bailey, Managing Director at Harley Facades Limited, said the company would cooperate with the investigation. “There will be many questions about this whole incident and so you will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for us to comment or for others to speculate on any aspect of fire or it causes in advance of these inquiries. At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.”
Rydon, the main contractor, said the refurbishment work met “all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards.”
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea issued a statement early Wednesday saying that its main focus was the rescue operation. “The cause of the fire will be fully investigated and we will keep people informed,” it said.
Questions over safety record
Residents’ concerns appeared to be focused on the management company’s fire safety record.
In October 2015 a fire ripped through another KCTMO property, the nearby 14-story Adair Tower in North Kensington, a “serious incident” according to official reports “which resulted in 16 residents requiring hospital treatment for the effects of smoke inhalation.”
After the Adair Tower fire, KCTMO had been issued with two enforcement motives to install “self-closing devices on all flat entrance doors” and review communal staircases and ventilation in the lift lobbies to ensure staircases are “available for use by residents and attending fire crews.”
According to minutes of a KCTMO board meeting in November 2016, works to address the issues raised in the enforcement notices had been completed.
The minutes also show that the management company put its fire policy and strategy under review across all of its housing stock.
It raised the need for a “more proactive approach” to fitting self-closing doors, to increase the frequency of fire risk assessments, and to address the issue of “hoarders” — residents who accumulate materials in their apartments.
Located between the wealthy neighborhood of Notting Hill and the White City social housing estate, Grenfell Tower was home to 125 families, according to local councilor Robert Atkinson. Many were council tenants — residents whose housing is subsided by the local government.
All of the building’s 120 apartment units were occupied throughout the refurbishment process, according to the borough website.
Dany Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, told reporters that it was an “unprecedented” event in her 29 years of service.
As you will appreciate, this is a completely unprecedented fire. In my 29 years in the London Fire Brigade, I have never seen a fire of this nature, and I have seen many high-rise fires.”
“This will of course be subject to a major investigation, but at this moment in time we do not wish to speculate further about the cause of the fire, or the fire’s spread. That is something that will be closely looked at in the very near future.”