Cladding - Should we be worried?

Posted by on 16 September 2017

Grenfell TowerCladding, a simple way to make your home or commercial building look elegant. You can choose from a variety of cladding that suits the personality of your residential or commercial property. But, what went so wrong with the Grenfell Tower's cladding? Could there be a silent killer?

Cladding has raised eyebrows around the world since June 2017 when the Grenfell Tower fire tragically claimed at least 80 lives. It was suspected that the cladding on the recently renovated apartment building contributed to the spread of the fire. This caused the building to engulf in flames faster than anyone could have predicted. This was a high rise building with others just like it, using similar cladding. So, what is cladding? It is considered as a material that covers and protects a structure. It can be used for insulation and appearance. Cladding on homes are often wooden features on new home builds and renovations for the outside of homes and buildings. The Queenstown Lakes District is popular for its dark cedar cladding and Central Otago Schist. There are certainly no worries of Schist fuelling any fire but what about cedar cladding and other commonly used cladding?

Any sort of cladding used for residential purposes does have the risk of fuelling a fire. But when there’s a house fire there is not a lot that would block the intense heat that rages through. The main thing to do is to use materials that are fire-resistant so that it does not fuel the fire. Your builder can help with those decisions. Residential buildings have the choice of regular or fire-resistant cladding. An aluminium composite panel is commonly used for its looks and practicality for high rise buildings. These panels are able to modernise older buildings and are used on new buildings. It is understood that aluminium composite cladding with a plastic inside was used on the tower. While the cladding was not fire resistant, it was the gap between the cladding and the tower that acted as a chimney that made the blaze uncontrollable. The blaze started on the fourth floor and was exacerbated by the outside cladding, destroying the 24 story appartment building. 

What is of most concern is the fact that the fire and its size was no surprise to authorities or occupants. For years, safety concerns were raised by occupants and even prompted Reg Kerr-Bell to stand down over his concerns. He was the former chairman of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation which managed the tower. The concerns fell on deaf ears and is a common example of a tragedy having to happen in order for there to be change. In 2014 Melbourne occupants of a high-rise building had a lucky escape when it caught fire. Flammable cladding played a huge part in fuelling the fire. New Zealand reacted by enforcing regulations to prohibit the use of combustible cladding panels on high-rises. The fire regulations in New Zealand were overhauled five years ago, but it has been revealed that there is still a grey area when it comes to high-rises. There are numerous safety factors when it comes to high-rise buildings: Should there be more than one stair case? Installation of sprinklers? Available information on what to do in a fire? These are questions that should have been asked when spending the 10 million pounds on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.

Protocol for a fire in the tower was to remain in your apartment and wait until the fire was under control. Unbeknown to them was the fact the fire would not be controlled. Those who did not listen to instructions got out safely. We have seen this happen in the Christchurch Ballantynes department store fire. Many died because staff kept them in the store because they were not told to evacuate. Adding to the drama was the single staircase in the middle of the tower. This was the only means of exiting on foot and had filled with smoke. Modern regulations permit staircases to be pressurised to prevent smoke from entering. Sprinklers had not been installed when refurbished because tenants did not want the further disruption that it would cause. This is an absurd justification when it comes to the safety of occupants especially when there were safety concerns amounting years ago. The devastation was caused by the fire but it seems poor organisation and planning was equally to blame. Communication is key.

It seems as though cladding has been a concern for many years, it is only now that authorities are doing something about it. New Zealand high rises are at very low risk of having this cladding. There have been concerns raised over a few buildings in Auckland and Wellington that might have the flammable cladding. The New Zealand Government has responded appropriately by encouraging councils to check cladding on high-rises and also any other safety concerns. Australia and the United Kingdom have been testing cladding on other buildings to ensure safety. At least 60 high-rise buildings in the UK have failed fire safety tests. Perhaps one of the most intriguing findings was the reasoning behind the refurbishment. The cladding was chosen for its sustainable advantages so the tower could meet green energy requirements. There was a fire-resistant option but of course it cost more. Sure, sustainability is a big part of any refurbishment and there are a lot of pressures for that in our modern world. But at what cost? Sustainability trumped safety on this occasion, it’s hard to have the best of both worlds. The Grenfell tower disaster has not fallen on deaf ears this time.

New Zealander’s don’t need to worry about cladding being a problem for their new home builds or renovations. Residential buildings are being tested to ensure maximum safety. When building or renovating it is a good idea to talk to your builder about combining sustainability and safety for your home.

Be sure to get in contact with us for more building or renovating solutions.