What caused the Grenfell fire? Here’s what we know

Never again. Image: EPA/Neil Hall.

The Grenfell Tower fire resulted in the greatest loss of life from a fire in Britain since World War II. A year on, we know that the fire’s rapid spread was at least partly due to the cladding that enveloped the building. Although a public inquiry is ongoing, and we’re still waiting for the full results of forensic evidence, there is no doubt that changes are needed to prevent this catastrophe from happening again.

This includes new regulation for high-rise buildings and the use of flammable materials in their construction. In addition, experts and researchers in fire safety need to work more closely with the government and construction companies. More immediately, for buildings similar to Grenfell, that were built according to old regulations, simple and immediate actions should take place now. Evacuation routes, sprinklers and fire retardant materials need to be installed as quickly as possible.

Construction problems

Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 and contained 120 flats, housing between 400 and 600 people. It was like a small vertical village. In 2016, the building was refurbished at a cost of £8.6m; this was when the cladding was introduced.

From the first media reports on the morning of 14 June 2017, engineers and scientists raised concerns over how quickly the fire spread, especially on the outside of the building.

It seemed that the fire was unable to be contained within a compartment. The concept of compartmentation in fire engineering is widely used in constructing buildings. By adding fire barriers, often fire resistant doors, fires are supposed to stop spreading quickly and so allow time for evacuation and treatment. But at Grenfell this did not happen: the fire quickly found access to the outer side of the building. Something had gone horribly wrong and the fire safety advice to residents to stay inside has since come under scrutiny.

The flammable cladding was instrumental in the fire spreading so quickly. Image: Flickr/ChiralJohn/creative commons.

Immediately, the focus was put on the new exterior skin (cladding). This not only contained flammable materials (polyethylene insulation covered by thin aluminium sheets that buckle in high temperatures and expose the internal material to flames), but was also installed onto the existing incombustible reinforced-concrete structure, in a way that left a gap between the facade and the building’s structure. This enabled what is known as the “chimney effect”. Put simply, the gap between the facade and the structural skeleton of the building meant that the fire sought oxygen and quickly travelled vertically, while burning more of the flammable skin.

It seems that the facade system, even if it was designed according to some regulations, did not perform properly. Such a catastrophic failure can never be the result of one single factor but rather was a chain of unforeseen events happening all at the same time.

Making sure it doesn’t happen again

Materials are still being fire-tested and several blocks remain evacuated. But although changes to building regulations are likely, these changes have yet to happened. This is partly because of the sheer complexity of the issue.

But some of the regulations that need to be implemented are clear. For a start, each type of building should be designed or refurbished with the appropriate regulation. So for example, all buildings that are higher than five stories ought to be provided with alternative evacuation routes such as more (or external) staircases, be equipped with sprinklers, and only be allowed to use fire-retardant materials, such as cementitious boards, ceramics, or glass facades.


Buildings like Grenfell should further be equipped with more sophisticated early warning systems that can detect the smoke and fire early enough. Not only could these systems set the alarm on and activate the sprinklers, but they could also restrict the fire within an area by making the building “active”. This could include automatically closing windows and self-controlled ventilation systems and elevators.

Another major positive change for tall residential buildings, would be the increasing use of performance-based fire resistance design. This is when each particular building is designed so that it performs under certain safety and strength criteria, allowing engineers to fully understand how the building will respond thermally and structurally to a fire incident.

Currently in the UK, for some buildings a general prescriptive-based approach is followed, which simply states how a building is to be constructed. The problem with prescriptive guidelines is that engineers ignore the actual response of the building and the effect of real fires, making the level of safety and robustness an unknown. Although this might be more costly in time and expense, when you have so many people living in one building it is necessary.

Each building design is also a different entity with its own limitations. So each building should be treated accordingly.

Collaboration and communication

Forensic evidence is still being collected and preserved. Once all the evidence is in, researchers and investigators will be able to review the causes and reasons why the fire spread in more detail. But right now we still do not have a deep enough understanding of the flammability of the facade systems, or the toxicity of the materials used.

Once we do, collaboration between academic researchers and companies producing cladding and other construction materials will be key. This is the only way of ensuring that products are developed to meet or exceed rigorous safety standards when put under pressure. This will be crucial for giving housing residents and the public greater confidence. Better communication between building regulators, local authorities, manufacturers, developers, and designers is also important.

The ConversationWe must start rehabilitating tall residential buildings as soon as possible, before another disaster occurs. And out of this tragedy must come long lasting changes to the design of buildings, the construction materials used, and the way they are applied.

Konstantinos Daniel Tsavdaridis, Associate Professor of Structural Engineering, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.