Outside of television sitcoms, does anyone still use the smug phrase “I told you so?” I think of couples bickering over being late for dinner or the movies. “You have no one to blame but yourself,” usually shuts off further debate.
Then why, in the wake of London’s Grenfell Towers fire, is it the phrase foremost in my thoughts? Once again, warnings went unheeded. In the May-June 2009 issue of Industrial Fire World, the column “Risk Assessment” dealt with increased fire risk blamed on exterior insulation and finishing systems (EIFS).
“The architects like to use EFIS because architectural features such as columns and decorative attachments can be created rather easily at a low cost,” the column states. “The finish coat can be made to look like poured concrete, concrete blocks, bricks or anything the architect wants.”
Unfortunately, some companies that claim to install EIFS systems use unapproved polyurethane-coated material rather than fire-tested components. The column outlines the extensive testing required under NFPA 285 regarding fire propagation characteristics, NFPA 268 regarding ignitibility from radiant heat, the Uniform Building Code standard 26-4 to evaluate flammability and ASTM E 84, which prescribes the required test method.
“Verify that the system is tested per the requirements in the ICC Evaluation Services Evaluation Report number AC 181,” the column states.
Part two of the column addressed actions to be taken for non-listed finishing systems and tactical considerations during a fire involving non-listed systems.
“Inspect the system periodically for cracks, chips or wear,” the column states. “If the finish coat is worn away, cracked or chipped, the heat from a small fire could get the insulation involved.”
The biggest precaution for firefighters to take is recognizing that an EFIS system is in use and pre-plan if there is a chance for it to become involved with a fire.
Fast forward to Spring 2015. The Marina Torch fire in Dubai, UAE, in February of that year made the cover.
“Frighteningly intense flames glowed 51 stories above the street …,” the article states. “At night, it cast a ghostly illumination across the city’s crowded skyline of more than 900 high-rise buildings.”
Completed in 2011, the 86-story structure was the world’s tallest residential building until an even taller one opened across the street the following year. The Torch’s external finish consisted of panels made from two sheets of metal composite with an infill of combustible foam. That foam exhibited rapid flame spread upon ignition.
With flames soon reaching the 70th floor, tenants were directed to two evacuation stairwells maintained at a positive pressure to prevent smoke intrusion.
The cladding proved relatively easy to extinguish using hose lines. The hard part was finding safe angles on the exterior of the building from which to direct the stream. Thankfully, sprinklers kept damage inside the tower to a minimum. The threat of future skyscraper fires in Dubai remains great, especially for structures completed before stricter building codes took effect in 2011.
On New Year’s Eve 2015, a fire erupted at The Address Hotel in downtown Dubai that was partly blamed on the building’s cladding. As with the Torch fire, no lives were lost.
Originally built in 1974, Grenfell Towers was designed in such a way that sprinklers were thought to be unnecessary. Each apartment functions as its own fireproof box, preventing flames from spreading to other apartments and floors.
That worked well until the fateful decision to wrap the place in material that easily communicated the fire across the entire structure. Fire resistant cladding had been rejected for the renovation as too expensive.
“You have no one to blame but yourself” falls far short of adequate condemnation for those responsible for a tragedy of this magnitude. How about condeming them to live in the structures they so poorly regulate?