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Five lessons learned from the Grenfell Inquiry

Mar 30, 2021 | Facades, Featured, News

Phase two of the Grenfell Inquiry[I] focuses on examining the causes and how Grenfell Tower came to be in a condition that allowed the fire to spread in the dramatic way identified during phase one.

Its second module, for which the hearings concluded on 25 March 2021, investigates how products intended for use in the construction industry are manufactured, tested and sold.

Five key lessons that are especially relevant to the EU can be drawn from the hearings[II]:

1. Market surveillance matters

The Hackitt review[III] had already highlighted the importance of improving market surveillance by setting up a better testing regime, “underpinned by a more effective market surveillance system operating at a national level.”[IV]. The Inquiry hearings exemplified just what could happen when market surveillance is not up to par. It described situations where products were sold for purposes not covered by the tests they had undergone. In other cases, a test was no longer representative of the products sold, and a test that had failed was used to pass a “desktop assessment”. Desktop assessments were introduced as a back door to compliance in 2013[V]. For the EU, the Construction Products Regulation’s ongoing revision offers a prime opportunity to improve market surveillance. The evidence coming from the UK underscores the importance of why we should seize it.

2. Test results must be clearly and transparently communicated

The Inquiry raised several questions regarding how fire tests are conducted and how the results are used and communicated, notably for the BS 8414 part 1 & 2 tests and corresponding BR 135. In several instances, failed tests were not communicated, sometimes even internally in the company[VI]. In contrast, the use of successful tests results extended beyond their original scope to market products. In other instances, the test was set-up to game the results, in part thanks to one of the test’s fundamental flaws, namely that it doesn’t have strict parameters for how a system is installed to ensure abnormalities such as additional fire barriers and non-combustible boards aren’t added where they wouldn’t be present in real life [VII] [VIII]. It is essential to rightly communicate information on products and systems that can inform correct and safe end-user decisions. The BS 8414 test is a system test, and a test failure cannot be imputable to a specific product. A system test looks at a combination of products in a specific setup. The system is supposed to be installed as tested, so when systems are tested according to BS 8414, the exact test-setup must be made available and clearly communicated.

3. Clarity regarding the regulations in place is paramount

Many Inquiry witnesses pointed to widespread confusion and diverging interpretations of fire safety regulation across the industry. There were misconceptions about the routes to compliance, the scope of application of system tests, whether a BR 135 was required or not, what “class 0” meant, combined with misleading communications around products. While most countries have strict requirements to use solely non-combustible materials for high-rise buildings, the absence of such requirements in the UK and the inclusion of alternative routes to compliance created confusion throughout the supply chain. This confusion can lead to dangerous situations for everyone involved: producers, builders, building owners and tenants alike. In the EU, there is the added ambiguity around products versus materials and systems and what the CPR should cover versus what should be left for Member States alone to regulate. Therefore, legal clarity with clear responsibilities is something that we must strive to improve.

4. We need clear responsibilities, and we cannot operate in silos

The Inquiry exposed another area where confusion reigns. Beyond what the regulation says and how to interpret it, many do not know who is responsible for what. Unclarity on responsibilities leads to what Mr Millet of the Grenfell Inquiry described as a “merry-go-round of buck-passing.”[IX]. The truth is, when it comes to building renovation or construction, fire safety is one of many concerns and often not the one that is at the forefront of stakeholder’s considerations. The Grenfell fire triadically demonstrates the consequences of not having a sufficiently strong regulatory system in place on fire safety. As fire safety is intricate and involves several actors in different aspects, it is all the more important to make sure that everybody is clear on who is responsible for what and information flows between stakeholders.

5. Lessons must be learned not only from the Grenfell tragedy but from fire events across the world

Nowadays, many countries are looking at the outcome of Grenfell proceedings to draw lessons. This interest is due, in part, to the fact that the Inquiry has done a great job of bringing together a staggering amount of evidence and making it accessible to people around the world. Yet, as the Inquiry rightly stressed, fire incidents in other countries raised the alarm on critical issues before Grenfell. But this did not impact how product manufacturers conducted business in the UK. The Inquiry cited the example of the fire in Bucharest in 2009, during which flames spread up a cladding system to the top of a tall building wall. We must be better at learning from fire events across the world. For the EU, the European Commission’s Fire Information Exchange Platform[X] offers a space for EU Member States to exchange information and lessons learned. This platform can deepen its analysis of fire events in Europe and hopefully provide evidence to stakeholders similar to what the Grenfell Inquiry has achieved. If we do not learn our lessons, we risk paying a hefty price, both societally and economically. The UK Government is already spending over five billion on fire safety remediation for buildings. [XI]

If these lessons resonate with you, and you want to take action to improve fire safety in the EU and beyond, we invite you to join the European Fire Safety Community powered by Fire Safe Europe. This Community is a platform for you to connect, pool knowledge and work collaboratively on solutions to improve fire safety in buildings.

 

References:

[I] Homepage | Grenfell Tower Inquiry

[II] These lessons do not aim to point to what happened in any specific hearing or regarding any specific party but rather to draw broader, more general conclusions.

[III] The Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety was announced by the government in July 2017 following the Grenfell Tower tragedy and was led by Dame Judith Hackitt. It examined building and fire safety regulations and related compliance and enforcement to focus on multi-occupancy high-rise residential buildings. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/independent-review-of-building-regulations-and-fire-safety-hackitt-review

[IV] Building a Safer Future – Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/707785/Building_a_Safer_Future_-_web.pdf

[V] https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/home/kingspan-used-bre-report-on-failed-test-as-basis-for-29-desktop-studies-grenfell-inquiry-reveals-69751

[VI] Hearing of November 11, 2020, “I don’t think anyone within the sales team would have ever had access to any of the test data behind any of these products.” https://assets.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/documents/transcript/GTI%20-%20Day%2069_0.pdf

[VII] Hearing of November 16, 2020: https://assets.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/documents/transcript/GTI%20-%20Day%2071.pdf 

[VIII] Hearing of March 3, 2021: https://assets.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/documents/transcript/Transcript%203%20March%202021.pdf

[IX] Phase 2, Module 1: Opening submissions on behalf of the BSRs presented by Team 2   https://assets.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/Module%201%20Opening%20%20-%20Team%202%20%28BSR%20group%29%20%281%29.pdf

[X] https://firesafeeurope.eu/fiep/

[XI] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/despite-brexit-uk-still-relevant-eu-when-comes-fire-safety-albiac/