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.

 
 
 
 

British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.