Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
CTBUH Releases Initial Statement on Grenfell House Fire in London
June 14, 2017

LONDON – CTBUH Fellow Simon Lay, Director, Olsson Fire & Risk, authored an official statement on behalf of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) regarding the devastating Grenfell House fire that occurred in London's North Kensington area on the morning of June 14. See the full statement below:

The tragic events at Grenfell House in West London this morning sadden us all and remind us of our responsibilities when funding, designing, building, and operating tall buildings. With at least 12 deaths being confirmed and over 78 injured (as of 7:47 p.m. GMT+1), there will be a detailed investigation and an independent enquiry with the possibility of criminal prosecutions arising. It is therefore too early and inappropriate to offer comments on the specific details at Grenfell House or to speculate on the events leading to the loss of life.

The refurbishment of high-rise buildings present both great opportunities and unique challenges. This is a topic that the CTBUH membership has considered, including at its recent Conference in China.

Image credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Existing high-rise housing stock in the UK represents an important resource for sustainable and affordable homes. Often, works are needed to improve the thermal, acoustic, aesthetic, and damp proofing performance of these legacy buildings, and in some instances refurbishment can offer an opportunity to improve upon fire safety provisions.

At this time, with regards the Grenfell House incident, there is a great deal of speculation surrounding the re-cladding of the building and whether this has played a decisive role in the tragic events. Given other recent high-profile incidents such as The Address (Dubai) fire and other similar incidents, that interest is understandable. However, every building is different, and fire safety is achieved through a package of measures in the design, construction, and operation of a building. Incidents such as this tragic case most often arise from an unfortunate and site-specific string of events – not one single factor.

Achieving a safe over-cladding design is a complex process. Delivering the necessary performance is a difficult challenge, often requiring input from multiple specialists, working together to deliver a holistic design. In such instances, fire safety is often delivered in the details, and at this time we simply do not have the relevant facts to enable an assessment of the relevance of cladding or other factors to be made at this stage.

Image credit: Andy Rain / European Pressphoto Agency
In the UK (and in most places in the world), the standard approach to the evacuation of a high-rise residential building is for a “defend in place” approach whereby only those initially at risk are automatically evacuated. As a result of this, residents of tall buildings are typically advised to stay in their apartment if there is a fire elsewhere in the building. The Grenfell House incident will no doubt raise speculation on whether defend in place is the best approach. Statistics tell us that defend in place remains the best policy and is based on sound principles as it enables fire fighters to work unhindered and protects against the apathy that can develop from exposure to false alarms. Whilst recognising that defend in place can rely on other safety measures being in place, any move to encourage a change from this strategy could put lives at risk and great care should be taken when contemplating or promoting any change.

The regulatory processes in the UK provide opportunity for all buildings to undergo a high level of scrutiny at the time of design, construction, and operation. Understanding what has gone wrong at Grenfell House will undoubtedly help inform the future of high-rise design and refurbishment, not just in the UK but globally.
Image credit: Toby Melville / Reuters