The fire in London’s Grenfell Tower has been the first item on news broadcasts in Berlin this week with much speculation about why it spread so quickly and whether the same thing could happen here. It has sparked a political argument in the UK about rich versus poor, the lack of tenant rights, basic housing standards and who is accountable. Successive governments have failed to listen to fire experts and despite commissioning various reports about the effectiveness of sprinklers in high-rise blocks, haven’t acted on the advice given. Theresa May has announced an emergency fund for residents and a public inquiry, but this could take years and delay changes to housing policy that need to happen now.
What we know so far:
- At least 79 people are dead or missing, presumed dead. Grenfell Tower had 120 apartments and 400-600 residents.
- The primary cause of the fire is thought to be the exterior cladding, a cheaper non-flammable version installed during refurbishment in 2014-16.
- Omnis Exteriors manufactured the aluminium composite material (ACM) used in the cladding. They were also asked to supply Reynobond PE, which is £2 cheaper than the alternative, Reynobond FR (fire resistant).
- Omnis Exteriors says it has completed almost 400 multi-story projects around the UK and reported a profit of £1.2m last year.
- Grenfell Action Group has been warning about the inferior safety standards at Grenfell and across the borough since 2013 and say ‘all our warnings fell on deaf ears.’
Plattenbau (tower block) buildings have part of German housing stock for years and were first built in Lichtenberg in East Berlin in 1926-30. They were showcase properties during the 1970s and considered to be the way forward to resolve the housing shortage after the war. Some were renovated to a high standard, and others were torn down. Germany has a different attitude towards plattenbau, and they have become trendy places to live because of the rising cost of housing. Here, long-term renting is the norm, and many households are on life-long tenancies so have an interest in looking after their homes and being part of the community.
Plattenbau safety in Berlin
Frankfurt’s fire chief, Reinhard Ries, is appalled by what has happened at Grenfell and said that tighter rules mean it’s unlikely to happen here. Germany is thought to have the toughest fire regulations around tower blocks in Europe. Construction companies were banned from using plastic-filled cladding on towers more than 22 meters high (the maximum height fire brigade ladders can reach) in the 1980s. Taller buildings require panels with a more fire-resistant core, separate staircases for evacuation and an internal firefighters’ lift to give them inside access to the higher floors.
Façade fires rapidly spread because they have polystyrene insulation, a petroleum-based plastic known as Styrofoam, which can easily catch fire. It burns higher in the heat and drips downwards towards the flames so the fire quickly becomes very intense and can spread to nearby materials. Manufacturers have been using chemical flame retardants like hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) to ensure the Styrofoam doesn’t catch fire but this is highly toxic and can be ineffective in a raging fire. Germany banned HBCD in spring 2016.
After a fire at a derelict house in Frankfurt in 2012, the Frankfurt fire department decided to record those involving Styrofoam. The 30-page list covers nearly 100 fires from 2001-2017 and documents at least 11 deaths in Germany since 2001 and over 100 injuries. Fire protection measures were tightened up in the 1980-90s, and combustible insulation isn’t allowed or must be cased in non-combustible materials. It is permitted in buildings of less than 22 meters, but fire bars made of non-flammable stone wool are used on each floor to stop the fire spreading. Styrofoam plates use mineral plaster (rather than the cheaper plastic core used at Grenfell) for additional protection.
How has Germany responded to the fire?
Bavaria’s Minister of the Interior Joachim Herrmann has said he wants to put an end to energetic building renovation in Germany. “A comparable façade fire at a high-rise building is virtually impossible here, but we will take this as a warning and check whether the exterior insulation required for energy reasons triggers an additional fire hazard,” he told Tagesschau.de.
The Berlin fire brigade is also demanding stricter fire protection regulations for lower buildings – flammable material is permitted in houses of less than 22 meters. “We are trying to persuade the legislature that it will no longer allow this combustible material as an insulating material, and only mineral material that cannot burn and therefore doesn’t allow the fire to spread across the façade,” Berlin’s fire chief Wilfried Grafling told Der Spiegel. “We have already had bad experiences as a fire brigade – not here in Berlin, but in other cities.” He also said the fire brigade should be involved in the construction process from the outset; there should be regular safety checks and training for residents, so they know how to use a fire extinguisher.
The Association for the Promotion of German Fire Safety (Vfdb) is also inspecting all buildings in Germany over a certain age – many of which are not fitted with sprinkler systems or firefighting equipment and has called for international standards for safety in buildings.
Inside Housing, a UK trade magazine which has been reporting on tower block issues for years can offer some context to the headlines. In 2015 it used an FOI request to reveal that just 18 UK council-owned tower blocks out of 2,925 had sprinklers fitted. Last year it also discovered that the London fire brigade had issued a warning to landlords about the risks of cladding on tower blocks. Grenfell had not had a fire safety inspection for 18 months, and its refurbishment involved temporarily removing fire protection between the floors of the building.
There are many questions for the public inquiry. Was the cladding fitted properly and why was added in the first place? Grenfell Action Group say it was purely cosmetic to pimp up the building in London’s richest borough, which seems an outrageous waste of money. Why were gas boilers installed? Were there enough fire barriers between the cladding on each floor? Why didn’t the fire alarms work? Why weren’t sprinklers installed after a previous fire in 2010?
In a first world country in 2017, it is unacceptable that there are no regulations around the use of a fire-retardant material in cladding on tower blocks, schools, and hospitals. There are buildings all over the UK with the same cladding and no sprinklers, which puts lives are at risk. Who would want to live in one now? We need to review these now and set new standards to make sure that a human tragedy of this scale can never happen again.