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It would be hard to find a simpler example of a catastrophe. Details are emerging that the overall plan for managing fire risk in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London, centered on the assumption that as each of the 120 apartments in the tower block had a fire door, any fire would be contained long enough for the fire service to arrive. Meanwhile all those living in the unaffected apartments could conduct an orderly evacuation from the building. As a concrete building, with concrete floors and walls, it would be hard for a fire to spread.

Yet, the introduction of external insulation panels, according to reports, had potentially switched the risk to the building to a new, catastrophic level. These panels were designed to both reduce the heat loss from the building and improve the appearance, but reports suggest the panels employed an aluminum foil covered insulation material that may have been flammable. Therefore, on these initial reports, it appears the risk has shifted from one in which the Probable Maximum Loss was individual apartment fires to the potential for the whole building to go up in flames – a veritable catastrophe. And the potential for catastrophe should have transformed how the residents were advised to respond to a fire – no longer to hunker down in their apartments, but instead to exit the building with all speed.

There has been plenty of warning that the introduction of new cladding materials for high-rise buildings has generated a correlated risk.

Since 2000 the largest number of high-rise buildings have been constructed in China, which has also been the principal producer of insulation panels. A 2013 Chinese study from the Tianjin Fire Research Institute of the Ministry of Public Security identified several high-rise buildings that had succumbed to rapid fire spread via the cladding:

  • The last night of the Chinese New Year festivities on February 9, 2009 included a massive fireworks ceremony in Beijing next to the new, and yet to be opened, 159-meter-high, 32-storey, Television Cultural Center. Several fireworks landed on the titanium-zinc alloy clad roof of the building, puncturing the metal panels, and igniting the underlying polystyrene insulation material. The fire spread rapidly across the sloping roofs of the building and, fed by high winds, within twenty minutes the tower was completely engulfed in flames, spreading into already furnished rooms, and even, unusually for tall building fires, propagating to lower floors as molten blobs of burning plastic dropped down the roofs.
  • On November 15, 2010, at a 28-storey high-rise apartment building in Shanghai, scaffolding was in place around the building to fit new insulation material to the external walls. The fire was started by welding sparks between the ninth and tenth floor. Within three minutes the flames had reached the twenty-first floor and a minute later had spread all the way to the roof. Ten minutes later, while the fire had consumed almost all the cladding on one side of the building, it had also spread into the apartment rooms from the sixth up to the twenty-seventh floors. Only then did the sprinkler system start to function but by then it was too late. 58 of the residents were officially reported dead because of the fire.
Shanghai jiaozhou
Fire at apartment block at Jiaozhou Road, Shanghai – November 15, 2010. Source: Wikipedia/Flickr (Peijin Chen)
  • On February 3, 2011, again because of fireworks to celebrate the Chinese New Year, fires broke out on the roof of an 11-storey apartment building at the Dynasty Wanxin complex in the north-eastern city of Shenyang, and then quickly spread to the adjacent 37-storey hotel building, and on penetration of the aluminum sheet coated insulation panels, within fifteen minutes the flames had reached the top of the building.
Wanxin Tower Fire
Aftermath of the fire on February 3, 2011 at Dynasty Wanxin complex in Shenyang. Source: Flickr/Niqodemus

This Chinese experience was probably not fully appreciated outside China, even though it was Chinese manufactured insulation cladding that was by now being exported around the world. In November 2014, a fire started from a discarded cigarette on a balcony of the second floor of the Lacrosse tower in Docklands, Melbourne, Victoria, rapidly spread via the Chinese manufactured cladding to the twentieth storey of the building, forcing hundreds to evacuate, but fortunately without loss of life because the fire did not then spread back into the building. However, in Australia there’s been growing concern among construction unions about the “flood” of such building materials into the country that could endanger the public.

The correlated risk of fire catastrophe introduced by flammable cladding is intolerable. We simply do not know how many high-rise apartment buildings there are at risk in the U.K. and beyond. Tower blocks with the most dangerous cladding may now become uninsurable. The presence and material employed in building cladding will now become very critical in determining the fire risk to residential high-rise properties. For those living in such tower blocks, the risk may be considered so high that they can demand relocation.

There will need to be some immediate action long before the laborious process of removing the cladding on all these buildings can be undertaken. Thermal cameras should be directed at the exterior of all these buildings, giving immediate notice to all the residents that a fire is underway. What we do know is that the tragic and catastrophic fate of the Grenfell Tower should never happen again.

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Robert Muir-Wood
Robert Muir-Wood
Chief Research Officer, Moody's RMS

Robert Muir-Wood works to enhance approaches to natural catastrophe modeling, identify models for new areas of risk, and explore expanded applications for catastrophe modeling. Robert has more than 25 years of experience developing probabilistic catastrophe models. He was lead author for the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and 2011 IPCC Special Report on Extremes, and is Chair of the OECD panel on the Financial Consequences of Large Scale Catastrophes.

He is the author of seven books, most recently: ‘The Cure for Catastrophe: How we can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters’. He has also written numerous research papers and articles in scientific and industry publications as well as frequent blogs. He holds a degree in natural sciences and a PhD both from Cambridge University and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London.

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