Sat | Jun 23, 2018

Editorial | In the wake of Grenfell

Published:Wednesday | June 28, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Yesterday, authorities in the German city of Wuppertal evacuated 80 residents from an 11-storey apartment building over concerns that it might be a fire hazard. The building's facade carries cladding similar to the one that is being widely blamed for the rapid spread of the June 14 inferno that engulfed the 22-floor Grenfell Tower in London, killing at least 79 people.

Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered public enquiry into the Grenfell fire, which was Britain's worst in decades. But her government has already identified 92 buildings, in 32 communities, with cladding or insulation similar to what was used at Grenfell. They fear that the number could rise to hundreds.

All are expected to be retrofitted. In fact, the borough of Camden in north-west London had already ordered 4,000 residents out of a five-tower Chalcots Estate, which had used the same kind of cladding as Grenfell.

Not too many people are likely to expect a Grenfell-type fire to happen in Jamaica. There are few buildings that tall in the island. Further, Jamaican architecture, insofar as it is apparent, doesn't make use of exterior cladding and has little need for such insulation.

The facade used on the Grenfell was in part for aesthetics. Originally, the outside of the building was plain concrete. But when the building - situated in the poorer section of the generally ritzy west London borough of Kent of Chelsea - underwent a £10-million refurbishment two years ago, cladding was installed to give it a facelift to, according to residents, make it more appealing to their rich neighbours.

This cladding is made from bits of aluminium that sandwich a highly flammable polyethylene core. In most of Europe, as well as many US states, building codes prevent its use on high-rise buildings, precisely out of fear of what appeared to have happened in Grenfell: If the polyethylene at the core ignites, its aluminium capsule acts like a duct, with sufficient oxygen to drive, in this case, a rapid vertical flow of the flames.


Cost overwhelmed safety


At Grenfell and elsewhere in the UK, economics and cost overwhelmed safety. It was cheaper to use this cladding rather than fire-resistant material. It was the same calculation that caused UK regulators to resist adjusting building codes.

There has been much discussion in Jamaica in recent years about upgrading its building laws and the codes governing construction. Things, though, have mostly stalled in Parliament. What has been implemented is little grasped by ordinary Jamaicans outside industry circles.

There has been no widespread public education on building code, including safety requirements.

Cladding was Grenfell's Achilles heel, plus the limit of firemen's ladders for high towers. Grenfell's refurbishing, too, left out automatic sprinklers and warning sirens and loud-hailers. It may be something else in Kingston, or Montego Bay and elsewhere. But the dangers are no less real. As we build higher, they are likely to become more acute.

In the wake of Grenfell, Jamaica must move with urgency on its building regulations and the Fire Brigade undertake an urgent audit of its own capacities and the extent to which buildings here comply with existing regulations.