Photo by Natalie Oxford.
By Jack J. Murphy
After the London Grenfell Tower high-rise building fire that killed 79 people, the municipal authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) have ordered that five other high-rise buildings with exterior cladding and insulation similar to the Grenfell be evacuated as a precaution.
Although it is an extraordinary undertaking, this life safety measure is a necessity. According to a New York Times article, there are “at least 11 buildings in Britain that use combustible cladding material similar to that used on Grenfell Tower…safety checks are being carried out on cladding from at least 600 high-rise buildings across the country.” The British Fire Service is boldly going against the norm and not waiting for the next code development cycle to modify the current U.K. Building/Fire Codes for exterior cladding [aka metal composite materials (MCM)] to take action.
In the United States, the building code exterior covering height installation is listed under IBC—Area Limitations, Section 1406.2.2. It refers to the building construction types (I, II, III, and IV) concerning exterior wall coverings and allows for combustible exterior wall covering not to exceed 10 percent of an exterior wall surface on any floor level and not to exceed 40 feet in height above the grade plane. Thereafter, exterior wall coverings that exceed 40 feet in height above the grade plane must be constructed of approved material.
So, why is a tall building under consideration for any combustible exterior material? When the fire service heightens their concerns at code hearings on items such as MCM materials, large lightweight “toothpick” residential construction pedestal buildings, and so on, the industry needs to heed the adequate life safety recommendations presented by fire experts. It is not acceptable after a tragic incident to continually say the building is “code compliant” when in fact it only meets the “minimum” code/standard as set forth.
The burden of safety is more than merely saying the building meets “safety standards” to the media than actually “enacting safety measures.” These are two different safety domains, the first is just talk while the latter is action. A fire service action element takes into consideration the what ifs, e.g. What if the Grenfell fire had exposure problems?
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Unlike when the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls a product, after being accepted as a code or standard, what measures are in place to address building components and materials that do not hold up to the enacted code/standard (other than the three-year code cycle period)?
Another piece in the New york Times about the Grenfell Tower fire stated the following:
“In 2014, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, an organization in the United States, counted 20 major high-rise fires involving cladding. In at least a half-dozen—in France, Dubai, South Korea, the United States and elsewhere—the same type of panels installed at the Grenfell Tower caught fire. A 2014 fire in Melbourne, Australia resulted in multiple investigations into the dangers of combustible cladding. Another fire broke out in Dubai, around a 60-story skyscraper, on New Year’s Eve of 2015, and yet another, around a 70-story skyscraper there this April.“
Beyond the investigation, what immediate action did the United States take to replace the cladding panels in question?
Taming the Fire Environment/Food for Thought
Following are some helpful tips to avoid a similar situation happening in your high-rise district:
- For new construction, abolish exterior combustible MCMs and other combustible materials.
- Broaden the scope of testing exterior building material requirements, especially for tall buildings, and reevaluate the acceptance methods.
- Local AHJs should seek building department databases for exterior cladding installations and perform preincident plans accordingly. If the installations are found to be combustible while still meeting the intent of the code, it does not hurt to ask for a replacement.
- Existing high-rise buildings installing any exterior cladding method must have an automatic wet sprinkler system throughout the structure.
- Establish an easy method for on-site construction inspections to verify a combustible cladding from a noncombustible cladding panel.
- Revisit cladding installation for other occupancies, health care, hotel, educational facilities, and so on.
- Create a process within the codes and standards to take action before a three-code development cycle when a building component or material needs to be withdrawn. Get out in advance of the hard lessons learned rather than after a tragic incident.
- Rethink the height limitation for tall “wooden” cross-laminated timber buildings.
- Develop a quick-access global database to gather daily fires, especially those sharing a common connection.
Little has been said about the London Fire Brigade, who knew as they were coming onto the scene that these were extreme fire conditions, and yet they made many valiant efforts to save lives. The United States Fire Service must benchmark and applaud the actions taken by the British Fire Service to evacuate other similar tall buildings during the Grenfell Tower fire.
- Yeginsu C and I Magra. “Chaotic Scramble as Fire Worries Force the Evacuation of 5 High Rises in London. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/world/europe/grenfell-tower-fire-hotpoint-london.html.
- Kirkpatrick D, Hakim D, and Glanz J. “Why Grenfell Tower Burned: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety.” Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/world/europe/grenfell-tower-london-fire.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone.
- Lee, J, Grondahl M, et al. “Escaping the Inferno” Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/24/world/europe/escaping-the-inferno-grenfell-tower-fire-london.html.
- Mendick, R. “Chimney Effect: Grenfell’s unusual design led blaze to spread, say investigators.” Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/24/grenfells-unusual-design-led-blaze-spread-say-investigators.
JACK J. MURPHY, MA, is a fire marshal (ret.) and a former deputy chief. He is the chairman of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association and a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) High-Rise Building Safety Advisory and the NFPA 1620, Pre-Incident Planning, committees. He has published articles and authored RICS: Rapid Incident Command System Field Handbook and the Preincident Planning chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and coauthored Bridging the Gap: Fire Safety and Green Buildings. He contributes articles to Fire Engineering and is a member of the Pennwell Fire Group executive advisory board. He was the recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award.