Some in our free and fearless press have short memories: it was less than two and a half years ago that Londoners awoke to find that the Grenfell Tower, a block of high-rise flats in north Kensington, had caught fire during the night. More than 70 people died and hundreds were made homeless, with the building’s refurbishment, using external aluminium cladding, now known to have been a major factor in the blaze.
That was then in 2017 ...
What the cladding, with an air gap to the building, also did because of that air gap was to cause what is known as the Stack or Funnel Effect, effectively turning that gap into a chimney and drawing the fire up through it. The cladding, with its polyethylene core, was not fire resistant; along with the air gap, that was a lethal combination. It overcame the compartmentalisation of the tower, which should have made “staying put” safe.
And in those two and a half years since Grenfell, very little has been done about removing unsafe cladding - or, indeed, deciding whether or not cladding of any kind can ever be safe, given what happens when the Stack effect kicks in. So it should have surprised no-one when another block with a cladded exterior suffered a fire which took hold with frightening speed - this time in Bolton, north west of Manchester.
The Cube, a student accommodation block, caught fire on Friday night. As the Guardian has reported, “Concerns have been raised over the cladding at a student accommodation building in Bolton where a fire spread ‘extremely rapidly’ … Witnesses said what appeared to be a small fire ripped through the upper part of the town-centre six-storey building, which is cladded in high-pressure laminate (HPL) material, ‘within minutes’”.
Grenfell was clad in Aluminium Composite panels, and that has been the focus of attention since the 2017 fire. But, as the Guardian piece points out, “there could be thousands of blocks with HPL”. And Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, while conceding that this was a different kind of cladding to that used at Grenfell, has concluded that cladding is a “bigger issue... than we have so far faced up to”. Any cladding may be dangerous.
... and this is now. Nothing has changed
All cladding systems leave that air gap for insulation purposes. As the Guardian report tells, “HPL panels, which can be made of compressed paper or wood fibre, have a variety of combustibility ratings”. All it needs is for the stack effect to take hold and anything made of compressed paper or wood fibre is going to burn, and fiercely.
It is little comfort to those evacuated from The Cube to know that “combustible ACM panels were banned last year for use on new tall residential and public buildings following post-Grenfell investigations”. Or to those in the “169 private-sector residential buildings with cladding systems unlikely to meet building regulations”.
The only improvement in Government response this time is that alleged Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson turned up after the event and talked to some of those evacuated, unlike Theresa May who declined to speak to any of the Grenfell residents after the fire there. But the threat of another cladding fire remains.
Hundreds of thousands live in medium and high rise buildings that have had cladding applied to their exteriors. Next to nothing is being done about it. Is it because the residents are less well-off? A case of “you might wish to think that, I couldn’t possibly comment”.
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