When, amid all the millions of words uttered about Grenfell, are we finally going to focus on the real cause of that fire? A comment on my column last week said that “only Booker could get a link between Grenfell, the EU and global warming into a single article”. But that is precisely the point. Without those two factors, the fire could never have happened.
As I had written, all this talk about “cladding” has been looking in wholly the wrong direction. The cause of the conflagration was less to do with the “rainscreen” cladding: it was the combination of 6in of combustible Celotex insulation foam behind it with a void creating a “chimney” effect, sending the flames roaring up the building.
In 1989, after a fire in an 11-storey block in Knowsley, the Building Research Establishment was asked to devise a means that could have prevented it.
It found that this should be a new “whole system test” covering all the materials used on the outside of buildings to see how they interacted when installed together.
But in 1994 the European Commission called for a new EU-wide fire test which was exactly what the BRE had found so inadequate with existing practice: a “single burn” test applied only to each material separately.
But after 2000, when a Commons committee investigated a high-rise fire in Scotland, MPs recommended that the BRE’s “whole system test” should be adopted as the British standard, BS8414.
By 2002, however, the EU had adopted its inadequate test, incorporating it in a European standard using EN 13501. Under EU law, this became mandatory, leaving the UK’s BS 8414 as only a voluntary option.
The EU had also become obsessed with the need for better insulation of buildings to combat global warming, which became its only priority. All that mattered was the “thermal efficiency” of materials used for insulation, for which none was to prove better than the polyisocyanurate used in Celotex, the plastic chosen in 2014 for Grenfell.
Fire experts across Europe have pointed out that the lack of a proper whole system test was ignoring the risk of insulation fires, not least in Germany, where there have been more than 100.
Strangely, the maker of Celotex has stated on its website that the material used in Grenfell has been tested by the BRE as meeting fire safety requirements. But the BRE has tartly responded that this test referred to a different installation; and that “Celotex should not be claiming that their insulation product can be used generically in any other cladding system”.
Had the Grenfell installation been properly tested under BS 8414 it would not have met the standard, and thus the fire could not have happened. The ultimate irony is that China and Dubai are now adopting mandatory systems based on BS 8414. They can do this because they are not in the EU. But, because Britain is still in the EU, it cannot legally enforce the very standard which would have prevented that disaster.