On Grenfell's second anniversary, 60,000 Britons are still living in firetraps clad in the same deadly, decorative materials

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/06/10/grenfell-nation.html

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So I have a context question: I know in the U.K. the term “public school” is used to refer to what we in the US call “private schools." If I understand the connotations correctly, to the British way of thinking such schools are owned by members of the public, where we think of them as owned and controlled by private (as opposed to government) interests.

This leads me to wonder, when an article like this refers to “public housing,” what is actually meant.

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I think this is a bit of mishmash of UK/US terminology.

No, the ‘public school’ is ‘public’ because it is open to anyone who can pay rather than being restricted to say choristers in the cathedral or children of members of a particular guild.

I’m not sure ‘public housing’ isn’t an imported term. As a nipper, the term would just have been council housing, as in owned by the council, then local authority housing - same thing just a different name for ‘council’.

Now we say public or public sector housing, since a lot of local authorities have outsourced their housing stock to housing associations which are technically private companies.

Confusing enough?

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While not my favorit Grendel song, they did do a song about the Grenfell towers.

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And in other news, we only just passed the fourth anniversary of the day Flint, Michigan ceased to have potable water delivered by their municipal water system.

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Meanwhile, the enquiry grinds along.

https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/news/update-inquiry-14

Phase 1 is essentially concluded with the report being written. Expected sometime October-ish. Will of course almost certainly be much later.

That’s the bit that deals with what happened.

Phase 2 will deal with why.

A lot of that stuff has already come up during Phase 1 of course.

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This sort of thing should serve as a preview of the austerity wonderland that the Tories have planned for post-Brexit Britain.

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I think that is quite on point.

Cory quite rightly makes a big thing about how those worst affected are the poorer amongst us but this issue cannot simply be explained by rich people deciding to shortchange the safety of the poor for their own convenience or benefit.

It is not just social/local authority housing that has been constructed in an unsafe way.

It is not just a local authority housing association trying to save a few quid on staggeringly expensive renovations.

Expensive new builds have the same problem.

This fire has laid bare the fact that our entire building control system is fucked.

We have a fire safety system that includes wonderfully weaselly things like allowing for “or other suitable alternative arrangements”.

i.e. persuade me you’ve got a viable system and it’s ok.

Except the building control officer has no idea how to safely build a 13 storey residential tower block so they rely on the developers who rely on the builders who rely on designers who should rely on manufacturers and their own expertise but no one along the way appears to actually read anything anyone else has prepared or actually understand what they are doing.

The manufacturer comes in for a lot of stick but the problem with that is - they never said their products were safe for this kind of application.

The designers cobbled together some sort of arrangement which may have been safe if correctly implemented. The builders bodged it up on site and various architects and other people didn’t stop them and tell them to do it properly.

No one involved appears to have the skill, time or money to do the job properly.

We, as a society, have let things get to the point where no one involved appears to have the time, skills, money or interest to do things properly.

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I’ve been studying building a lot, as we’re looking at building a house, and I just read an interesting article “We’re been putting air barriers on the wrong sides of the walls all along” clickbait, maybe :wink: but it was a great article about how we build multistory buildings basically as huge chimneys and fail to isolate floors from each other. (spoiler: The air barriers belong inside the building, mostly on the ceilings. water barriers belong on the outside.)

ETA: ok, not as click-bait-y as I remember (man, it’s a little scary how much bullshit my brain inserted in mis-remembered that headline…) https://www.buildingscience.com/documents/building-science-insights/bsi-108-are-we-sealing-right-walls-buildings

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A brand new block of flats in Barking went up in flames just yesterday. Fortunately there were no casualties, but the residents had been requesting a fire safety review following a BBC investigation into similar properties:

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Somehow, this story and the ongoing problems in Flint seem more like the terrible stuff of fiction. It’s not only that there are infrastructure problems, but also administrations somehow invested in making them worse. It’s not clear if they expect to profit from the excessive cost of repairing systems after decades of deferred maintenance, or if they just want less people to govern.

I’m sorry now that a relative convinced me to binge-watch key episodes of GoT. The first thing that came to mind after reading this was, “What’s next, caches of wildfire beneath city streets?” Then I remembered how many news stories in the past year involved explosions from leaking natural gas lines.

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What I find most dumbfounding about the whole thing, is that it was built with only one stairwell.

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Maybe the fight against terrorism requires extended interrogation techniques to make this racket disclose their plots of deadly negligence for profit, and prevent further loss of life?

Edit: I had such a good rage fit, but it might not be true after all:

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More stairwells probably wouldn’t have helped in this particular case - although in general they are obviously not a bad idea.

The difficulty was that the stairwell was supposed to be kept free of smoke and fire. That didn’t happen.

More unusable stairwells full of smoke and fire wouldn’t change much.

Especially if the advice to residents was still “Stay in place” - on the basis that fire would be kept in the relevant flat until the fire brigade could get there and put it out.

Buildings like that are designed and built on the basis that a whole host of safety features all work.

In this case, hardly any of them did - and the available evidence indicates that pretty much any building of the same size (in the UK at least) is just as shoddily designed and constructed.

These air barriers are nothing to do with fire protection and aren’t really relevant to the UK, we would always have put the air barrier (aka vapour barrier) on the inside and the water barrier (aka breather membrane) on the outside. In high humdity climates where AC is common you sometimes have to flip this. (eg florida perhaps)

UK air tightness regs are actually very stringent… but that’s about energy conservation.

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More staircases would have meant there was no “stay in place advice”

The main issue is that there are tons of single staircase blocks in the uk, it’s almost the norm, which sounds insane to people from some countries, but is not something we can readily do much about.

But as you say they rely on other secondary management and maintenance regimes which have been allowed to slip.

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Not necessarily. As I understand it, the ‘stay in place’ advice is there for a variety of reasons. Amongst other things the simple difficulty of evacuating a building containing that many residential properties safely and quickly, no matter how many staircases you’ve got.

There will be confusion and crushing, people will get lost, some people won’t leave anyway so the fire brigade have no idea whether there are still people in any given flat.

In addition, any time you have people moving around the building, they are opening doors, causing airflows and breaching the fire compartmentation of the building.

But yes, we have lots of buildings with only one staircase and there is sod all we can do about it - apart perhaps from not covering reasonably safe concrete buildings with nice decorative external fire distribution systems.

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It’s worth pointing out that the root problem is the use of a particular kind of insulation… it’s not a “decorative material”, it’s there to insulate the building (which would have historically had next to none) and reduce energy use / improve heating etc.

The significant issue is that the UK regs are entirely silent of spread of fire outside the building and back in, and only measured the fire performance of insulation as it’s resistance to surface spread of flame, not its inherent flamability… so cover it in tin foil and bingo. The drive to use these materials is mostly due to thickness, for the required U-values, rockwool gets very thick very fast.

what this will mean is that nobody will try to renovate or improve the thermal performance of older buildings leaving people in council housing freezing with leaky facades.

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the stay in place advice is very much linked to proportion of the number of staircases vs the number of people. when you have one stair the fire brigade need it to get access so it’s far far more likely that you will have a “stay in place” instruction than in a building with 2 escapes.

Compared to buildings like concert halls, schools etc with more people, the number of people evacuating apartments is relatively small and usually not all at the same time. (people will take a range of times to leave) also given the familiarity with the users with the building reduces confusion / crushing risk. Stay in place strategies would be really hard to justify with 2 staircases.

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