The tragic events that unfolded in the early hours of Wednesday morning at the Grenfell Tower are a horrific reminder of the dangers when a fire engulfs a high-rise building.
The speed at which the fire spread took both the emergency services and the families living there by surprise. The advice on notices at the tower that people should stay in their homes in the event of such an emergency must now be under serious question. However, other questions now also need to be answered.
First of all: how did the fire manage to spread so quickly?
The Grenfell Tower blaze is still in the recovery and rescue phase so it is too early to speculate on the reasons why the fire took hold as fast as it did.
In the event of a fire in high-rise buildings, the design of the tower itself is supposed to compartmentalise the blaze to stop it spreading.
The idea is that by slowing down the spread of a fire, the emergency services can come in and deal with any incident quickly.
However, the investigation into another fire tragedy at Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009 found that the fire managed to spread from one apartment to another in less than five minutes.
An issue identified at Lakanal House was the use of external aluminium panels, which were filled with a highly combustible foam.
An internal report by Hammersmith Borough Council and the London Fire Brigade into a separate fire in Hammersmith in 2016 also found that the “likely” reason the fire spread was due to the way external insulation panels reacted to fire.
Another big question that needs to be answered is why the government didn’t launch a review of Building Regulations after the horrendous fire a Lakanal House in 2009.
This issue transcends housing ministers and it’s surprising that even though former communities secretary Eric Pickles said in 2013 that the review of Building Regulations and new edition of the Approved Document would be published in 2016/17, nothing was done.
The revolving door of housing ministers – six in seven years – is not an excuse to delay the review anymore.
Another question is what the industry itself can do.
A report in 2010 by the London Assembly stated that regulations “had not kept pace” with innovation in construction methods. Are the current tests that the industry uses sufficient for seeing how new materials react to fire?
Speaking to CN in a personal capacity, Larry Cody, representative of the European Phenolic Foam Association, said: “I think in the construction industry things have moved on, and there’s a lack of knowledge in terms of architects and designers and even firefighters in the use and combinations of use of modern materials.
“There have been projects going on in the last 10 years but I believe the government should have taken a review a bit earlier.”
Calls for a public inquiry are now likely to swell as the demand for answers gathers pace.
CN’s sister title the Architects’ Journal has launched an appeal to raise £5,000 for those families caught up in today’s tragic fire. You can show your support here.