Grenfell: The warnings. A discussion with our Building Surveying Programme Leaders

Posted on: 2018-10-31

The BBC aired a documentary entitled ‘The Fires that Foretold Grenfell’ last night.

Ahead of the broadcast, the BBC News website published a story with more information about the content of the documentary – namely, five fires which had taken place in the UK between 1973 and 2009 with strikingly similar characteristics to Grenfell.

The story begged the question: why weren’t lessons learnt which could have prevented Grenfell and, indeed, the subsequent fires after the first examined in 1973?

To gain some perspective, we spoke to Jane Ballantyne, our BSc (Hons) Building Surveying Programme Leader, and James Ritson, our MSc Building Surveying Programme Leader, who delved into wider issues surrounding this timeline of fires leading up to Grenfell and what could have led to the tragedy.

James Ritson

MSc Building Surveying Programme Leader, James Ritson

Q: Of the five fires listed, which have you heard of?

James Ritson: Being from the Isle of Man, the Summerland fire is a big deal in the area. There were fundamental flaws in that design. What was so horrible for those on the Isle of Man was that it was where the swimming pool was, the cinema [too]. Summerland was a big part of the region.

It happened in 1973 so it happened before I was born. The building was then refurbished and then closed again. They corrected some of the mistakes but didn’t fix the problem.

A theme from Grenfell was that the priorities were in favour of energy efficiency over basic safety to meet BREEAM recommendations which meant that they couldn’t afford the fire sprinklers. It was a flaw of value engineering.

Jane Ballantyne: It was known to be highly flammable material. The fire in 1973 you refer to resulted in a recommendation to install sprinklers and fire-resistant walls, yet 44 years later it’s clear these lessons weren’t taken.

An outcome of the fire in Huyton (fire at a tower block in 1991) was that the Building Regulations changed. This required firestops at various intervals throughout buildings to prevent the chimney effect of fire spreading up behind the cladding.

Going back to your question, the fires in Huyton and Scotland (fire at Garnock Court, western Scotland in 1999) took place before I was a practitioner.

I remember the fire at Lakanal House (fire in Camberwell, south London in 2009) because six people died and some of those were young children. I don’t remember the details of it. It has come out that the things which happened at Lakanal House also happened at Grenfell.

If the recommendations which had been made in the aftermath of Lakanal House had been implemented then Grenfell could have been prevented, however, with Grenfell, there wasn’t just one thing which went wrong – everything went wrong. The fire was inside then outside then back inside.

Grenfell Tower wasn’t built to regulations. Of course, some lessons have been learnt and I think there was an element of complacency involved. More concern was on the thermal insulation than the fire equipment.

Jane Ballantyne

BSc (Hons) Building Surveying Programme Leader, Jane Ballantyne

JR: My view was that it was over-value-engineered. There was a focus on targets rather than what the users needed. It’s not sustainable [this focus].

What I can’t get my head around is how they forgot about the basics in their pursuit of energy efficiency.

JB: People had forgotten about fire regulations.

JR: I can understand it in the sense that I could imagine that those in charge of the tower thought: ‘well, it’s worked for 50 years, so why change it?’

Like Jane said, I think there was a level of complacency involved.

JB: The type of insulation used at Grenfell was not allowed to be used over 18 metres in height.

JR: It was inappropriate use of materials. They had no idea what they were doing with the materials.

JB: It’s known that the material used at Grenfell was flammable.

JR: Somebody approved the use of that technology.

JB: Somebody recommended it. Somebody approved it. Somebody passed it.

JR: Somebody made the decision to prioritise fire and other living necessities lower than the need to meet a particular target for BREEAM.

There was a target throughout Kensington to increase energy efficiency across the borough and that drove the decisions behind the cladding.

JB: Building Control should have picked it up.

JR: I have been involved in fire prevention where we have got a fire engineer or supplier involved in projects. Would an engineer have picked up the issue?

JB: A common theme after the fires examined in the BBC documentary is that not enough was done afterwards. The issue of fire safety must have fallen down the news agenda and sadly, it took 72 people to die for it to become something people pay attention to.

JR: I think it is societal. As analogies, you could argue the same for gun crime in America when there is an outcry after a shooting or road safety after an accident in the news. That’s an inevitability about our society and it shows that we are complacent.

The first things you come across in Building Regulations is structure and fire safety. These are core components of constructing and looking after buildings. The original source of the Building Regulations came after the great fire of London in 1666!

These fires boil down to complacency and errors in decision-making.

Q: Was Grenfell unprecedented?

JR: It’s not unprecedented. There have been terrible fires in Hong Kong and Bangladesh. It’s a worldwide issue.

We need to be asking: ‘at what point is a building unsuitable? Are they fit for purpose?’

JB: With Grenfell, before it was refurbished, it was probably fit for purpose in terms of fire safety (although not in terms of thermal performance, of course). It then got wrapped up in plastic and became a death-trap.

JR: There are bigger questions about whether you replace or recycle but we’re not hitting housing targets as it is, so knocking down towers and starting again isn’t a viable solution.


‘The Fires that Foretold Grenfell’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 29 days. The conversation transcript took place before the documentary aired and the programme goes into more detail behind the background of the fires which could, and should, have prevented Grenfell.