Sustainability

Green Building Practices May Have Contributed to the Grenfell Fire

The local government put "sustainability" ahead of safety.

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Grenfell Tower

What caused the Grenfell Tower fire? An independent public inquiry into the blaze, which killed at least 79 people in London earlier this month, is slowly getting started, so we won't have a complete answer to that for a while. But one major culprit is already coming into view: a local government pushing "green energy" renovations at the expense of safety.

Preliminary analysis of why the fire spread so rapidly points to the flammable aluminum composite cladding that was installed during a recent renovation project. The renovation was undertaken by the Kensington-Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO), the non-profit that managed the tower for the Kensington-Chelsea Borough Council. (The council does not merely contract with the KCTMO but selects a portion of its board.)

According to Jim Glocking, technical director of the Fire Protection Association, a U.K.-based safety organization, this flammable cladding is "often being introduced on the back of the sustainability agenda, but it's sometimes being done recklessly without due consideration to the consequences."

That's not just idle speculation. Documents from the Kensington-Chelsea Borough government and the KCTMO confirm that a "sustainability agenda" was directly behind the decision to install the material. The borough's 2013–2017 housing strategy invokes "the importance of seeking reasonable alterations to the existing building stock to mitigate the causes of and adapt to the effects likely to occur due to climate change," then announces that it "recently agreed to clad a high rise block in the north of the borough, which will improve the energy efficiency of all the properties within it."

That high-rise block was Grenfell.

In a 2013 statement about the renovation project, the KCTMO praised this "upgrade of the cladding" as a way to "greatly enhance the energy efficiency of the tower." The KCTMO repeated this rationale for the new cladding while announcing the selection of a contractor, and again upon completion of the renovations. Multiple tenant newsletters released during the renovations made it clear that the green-energy-concerned Borough Council was responsible for reviewing the cladding options and for making a final determination on which type to select.

This direct link between a "sustainability agenda" and the Grenfell fire has not stopped commentators from trying to cast the issue as one of state-shrinking austerity. A columnist in the Lahore Nation blamed "the desire for profit and accumulation" for the disaster, claiming that "the cladding used in Grenfell Tower was chosen precisely because it was cheaper than non-flammable alternatives." A Guardian writer took the authorities to task for "hands-off management, contracting out, and cost-cutting." Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that "if you cut local authority expenditure then the price is paid somehow."

This theory ignores the repeatedly stated reason for installing the flammable cladding. It also suggests that the Kensington-Chelsea Borough government endangered its tenants in order to save an estimated £5,000 on a £67 million renovation project, while that same government sat on a reported £200 million in cash reserves.

More broadly, critics have accused the Kensington-Chelsea Borough Council and the KCTMO of a mix of incompetence and indifference in how they manage their public housing properties. If even half of what is being said about them is true, that accusation is accurate. The worst example may be a hamfisted energy agenda that allowed a fire to turn so deadly, so quickly.

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32 responses to “Green Building Practices May Have Contributed to the Grenfell Fire

  1. If it was indeed a cheaper application, it’s likely they used “sustainability” as a selling point. Unfortunately, no one took into account what a burning building shoots into the atmo.

    1. Plus side: that’s 80 fewer people consuming resources and creating pollution.

    2. I don’t know how public construction works in the UK, but in the USA I’ve never seen the decision making process start with saving money. You tick off all the boxes on your wish list, check your budget, see if you can get more funding, and then start to think about “value engineering.”

      IOW, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the “sustainability” angle was the first (and maybe only) one considered, perhaps at the behest of a salesman for the cladding, and the cost savings was just a nice bonus to emphasize at the budget review meeting.

  2. Any force by advocates of “sustainability” will likely get buried in collective condemnation of “going cheap” and saving money at the cost of lives narrative. This of course is already being attributed to lack of more government oversight.

    1. as I understand it the KCTMO is a bureaucracy created by the KCBC bureaucracy, non of which are actual corporations but management bureaucracies set up by the government bureaucracy to appease the residents to oversee the running of their form of welfare housing. Its fubar top to bottom on this one

      1. I’m trying to conceive how nightmarish it must be to “work” in such places.
        May God have mercy on their souls.

    2. You forgot the kickbacks.

  3. critics have accused the Kensington-Chelsea Borough Council and the KCTMO of a mix of incompetence and indifference

    A mix of incompetence and indifference? In government officials?

    No, that can’t be right. This must be the fault of free market capitalism.

    1. Was there a grocery in the lobby? Market failure!

    2. This must be the fault of free market capitalism.

      We’re a non-profit with ?200 million in cash reserves, what’s to worry about?

  4. What could possibly be more green than killing a whole lot of people? Duh!

    1. That’s one way to reduce their footprints.

      1. When cities put the environment over the lives of their citizens this is an inevitable result. And since most of these chuckleheads are Malthusian’s it’s hardly surprising when this is the end result of their idiocy.

        Of course, I am given pause by the notion that this insulation was both ‘green’ and ‘cheaper’ given that those two things are virtually never uttered in the same sentence. I suspect that their stated reason of ‘going green’ was indeed just a stated excuse for using cheaper materials, but we’ll find out in due time what excuse the government gives us.

        Since it’s Britain, the odd’s of finding out the truth when it comes to government malfeasance is around zero. They are the society warned of by Orwell.

        1. yes, the claim is suspicious since the words ‘green’ and ‘cheaper’ rarely appear together.
          Neither does organic and cheaper.
          Made a subsidy was involved

  5. I’ve read elsewhere that the same kind of cladding has already been implicated in previous fires, that this was called to the local council’s attention, and that it was brushed aside. If that is a case, the council members should be tried for negligence.

    Now, can somebody explain to me, again, the moral difference between the medieval Inquisition that burned people to save their souls, and the modern Green movement? I seem to have lost track of it…..

    1. Now, can somebody explain to me, again, the moral difference between the medieval Inquisition that burned people to save their souls, and the modern Green movement?

      The Inquisition didn’t have as many centuries of science and secularism to objectively tell them what they were doing was empirically and morally wrong?

  6. Okay – having looked into a little further now, the situation is not so simple.

    The cladding used on the building was not the cladding specified by the architect and approved by the council.

    It still seems to be an open question as to when the substitution was made, and by whom.

    In such cases, a safe bet is that the contractor wished to use the cheaper material and may or may not have called the owner’s attention to the substitution.

    If the council approved the substitution, then they have liability, but the contractor may have substituted without notifying anyone (although how they snuck that past the inspectors is an open question).

    The UK building code does actually forbid this stuff on towers of a certain height.

    In short, it looks like the “sustainable material” was just-barely inflammable enough to qualify for use, and then was substituted for a cheaper, more flammable material, probably by a contractor gaming the public works system (but that’s just an educated guess).

    1. About a week ago, I read that cladding with a mineral based core would be less flammable than the plastic ones that were used in the building.

      Is that what you found?

      1. cladding with a mineral based core would be less flammable than the plastic ones

        That would be true, yes, and that’s sort of what I’m getting in my last paragraph – with the material that was specified, fire prevention properties certainly were not the primary consideration, even though the panels did meet code. My understanding is that the approved panels are still plastic cored, not mineral, and thus more flammable than you would normally choose if not for the “sustainability” considerations.

        Not to sound like crotchety construction guy, but what they should have had was asbestos-entrained cement board. That’s stuff really is inflammable, in addition to being practically indestructible.

        1. From what I’ve read the cladding itself is fine, the problem is that they installed it without any breaks to stop the fire from spreading quickly… The cladding is offset a foot or two from the structure, this void is filled with insulation (usually polyurethane foam) and it’s purposely not made airtight so moisture that gets inside can get out.

          Had they had breaks every so often it’s likely that a single section would have smoldered until the fire department arrived to put it out… instead what they got was a building encased in what amounted to a fuel lined chimney.

        2. Inflammable means something DOES burn.

    2. It does make one wonder when a solution is being touted as green, and yet it is somehow cheaper than the ‘non-green’ option. That basically never happens.

      1. And unfortunately, public officials are often really gullible that way.

  7. We need government to provide what the free market can’t, such as high quality, safe, and affordable housing for poor people, so that they aren’t killed by icky profit motives.

    Therefore, none of this actually happened.

    Move along.

  8. No government employees will be harmed in this investigation. Austerity measures by the Tories will be touted as the general cause, but since bureaucratic approval dogged every step of this improvement, there will be no error found in the process. So, who does that leave? Who manufactured this material? Ah yes, a private business, consumed by the evil profit motive. CEO dragged into court in handcuffs, photo op, happy ending.

  9. Sorta like how NASA allegedly changed materials to be more environmentally friendly, and that’s why the foam impact doomed Columbia.

  10. What about building codes in England?

    The institutionalized Federal US government PAY TO PLAY bribery procedures are apparently now accepted at the local city government employee levels in the USA.

    I am not familiar with the Oakland city Building Code, but converting a warehouse into multilevel living spaces using wood partitions would not comply with any national building code.

    Did Oakland city building inspectors take periodic cash gratuities to allow this money making residential operation to continue?

    Did Oakland city councilmen take cash gratuities to exempt this money making residential operation building from The Oakland Building Code compliance?

    I hope that Houston does not have any of this PAY TO PLAY going on that might cause the deaths of some of our Houston citizens.

    Why aren’t some of the Oakland City Councilmen, Mayors, Building Inspectors, and property owners that allowed that flammable fire in jail or prison?

    Maybe England is following the US PAY TO PLAY system of administration of their Building Code Compliance enforcement!

    1. The institutionalized Federal US government PAY TO PLAY bribery procedures are apparently now accepted at the local city government employee levels in the USA.

      I’ve built lots of things all around northern CA, and I’ve never seen any evidence of this really being a thing. Don’t get me wrong – there’s corruption – but it’s not of the “hand the plan reviewer a envelope of cash” type. It happens in other ways.

      Did Oakland city building inspectors take periodic cash gratuities to allow this money making residential operation to continue?

      Almost certainly not. The Ghost Ship was a glorified homeless camp in a warehouse space, not some real estate cash cow. Oakland Fire, the agency having “responsibility,” is notoriously incompetent and negligent about stuff like that. They’ve actually been stripped of their authority for reviewing and approving underground storage tanks because they suck so badly at that kind of thing.

      OFD knew about Ghost Ship but didn’t do anything about it most likely because the alternative was to have all of those people join the already bursting-at-the-seams homeless population of Oakland, where a runaway fire in a homeless camp under the freeway along 7th Street just killed another dozen people a few weeks back.

  11. People dying is all part of the war on global warming. What’s a few dozen or a few million dead here or there if we are to stop global warming/cooling, known as climate change, and save man from himself.

  12. There’s a long speculative WUWT thread on this topic at https://goo.gl/A4ALFs

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