The recent Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 was a tragic engineering disaster resulting in the devastating loss of 72 lives. At 00:54 BST on the 14th of June 2017 a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, West London. The fire rapidly grew from a fourth story apartment kitchen, with the source being found 'in or around' a malfunctioning fridge-freezer. It spread rapidly up the building's exterior, bringing fire and smoke to all the residential floors, covering all 4 sides of the building. The fire continued to burn for around 60 hours before it was finally extinguished thanks to the combined efforts of more than 250 firefighters from the London Fire Brigade and 70 fire engines, as well as ambulances, paramedics, the Metropolitan Police and the Emergency Response Team. The fire was recorded as the UK's deadliest building fire since 1988 and the UK's worst residential fire since World War II.
This disaster highlighted the importance of building fire safety and shone a light on the major role that façades can play as a fire propagation vector. The severity of the Grenfell Tower fire and its tragic consequences are in large part due to the rapid propagation of the fire vertically over the east façade of the tower before spreading horizontally around the tower in both clockwise and anticlockwise directions, and the penetration of the fire through windows into apartments. This rapid propagation of the fire vertically and horizontally on the building’s exterior was due to the buildings cladding, the external insulation and the air gap between which enabled the stack effect, when warm air travels upward in a building.
The tower had recently been refurbished between 2012-2016 by Rydon Construction where they installed new cladding and insulating on the exterior of the building along with new windows. In this refurbishment they failed to add indoor sprinkler systems, fire alarms and a second staircase in the case of an emergency. The new windows were fixed on pre-frames composed of aluminum with some windows in the building able to be slightly opened into the building. There were many different window failure behaviors observed during the fire depending on their position, if they were tilted open or closed. These positions led to a rapid failure of the windows and penetration of fire from the outside to the inside of the tower. It can be difficult to determine whether the state of the windows is due to early failure or prolonged exposure to fire. The new external cladding and insulation of the tower is thought to have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, with both of them failing all preliminary tests by the police. Documents obtained by the BBC suggest that the cladding that was fitted in the refurbishment was changed to a cheaper version as the originally proposed Zinc cladding was replaced with an aluminum cladding, which is less fire resistant. This saved them nearly $570,000. Cladding can create air pockets which in some cases can cause the stack effect resulting in flames being drawn up the air pocket if there are no fire barriers. It was stated by The Department for Communities and Local Government that aluminum panels with a polyethylene core should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18m high, with Grenfell Tower being 67.3m high this is a breach of safety regulations. This breach was later confirmed by engineering and manufacturing company Arconic with them stating that one of its products, Reynobond PE (polyethylene) - an aluminum composite material - was 'used as one component in the overall cladding system' of Grenfell Tower. It is believed if these materials were not installed in the refurbishment the fire of Grenfell Tower would not have spread the way that it did, and many lives would have been saved.
This refurbishment is a great example of an engineering project that has taken design for cost as a principle. Design for cost is the redesign of a project until the content of the project meets a given budget, this usually results in a reduced performance quality and even a reduce in safety. We can see that they have clearly sacrificed the quality and the safety of this building to meet a budget, by choosing unsafe and uncertified aluminum cladding instead of the originally proposed Zinc cladding. This is again displayed through the windows that were installed, using unreliable resources to fit a budget instead of putting safety first. This refurbishment also took design for manufacturing as a principle. Design for manufacturing deals with steps for improving manufacturing process to make a good product with reduced manufacturing cost. Clearly, they didn’t do this in a safe way as they didn’t consider material properties when choosing their parts and possibly even ruled out important safety features in the analysis stage. If this design process was completed correctly and safely it could have helped slow the spread of the fire and possibly saved lives.
I believe when refurbishing Grenfell Tower design for safety should have been their number 1 priority because the social impact this caused clearly outweighs the money saved by taking ‘short cuts’. Design for safety means that the product should be designed with occurrence of less illness, injuries, accidents or hazards with increased productivity, this also applies to the materials used. If this was their key aspect in refurbishing Grenfell Tower, they would have implemented safer cladding, safer windows, indoor sprinkler systems, fire alarms and included more exit staircases in the case of an emergency. But their choice to use unsafe materials to save money resulted in the death of 72 innocent people.
This disaster had a catastrophic impact on society. Zain Miah, the founder of Grenfell Muslim Response Unit stated that their project to support victims of Grenfell Tower ended in early 2019, 2 years after the incident, as many of the families they advocated for were now able to manage independently. Miah states “You don’t move on from Grenfell, but you can move forward”. This one statement demonstrates the impact this had on all that were involved and the time it has taken for them to heal.
In conclusion, this terrible disaster wouldn’t have occurred if safety was the number one priority instead of meeting a budget. This was a perfect example to demonstrate that using uncertified, unsafe and cheap materials to meet a budget will never outweigh safety. Rest easy to all of those 72 victims that lost their life due to poor engineering decisions.
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- Miah, Z., Long, C., Masoud, L. and Renwick, D. (2020). Grenfell Tower, Two Years On. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/14/grenfell-tower-fire-two-years-firefighters [Accessed 5 May 2020].