At least 17 people died, and at least 78 more were injured in London’s Grenfell Tower fire yesterday. And while many things affected the growth of the fire—a spark from a cigarette on an eighth-floor balcony, a gas line leak, faulty wiring—the main culprit that caused so much devastation so quickly was the cladding (a type of siding).
The cladding had been added to Grenfell Tower in 2015 to increase the aesthetic look of the tower. According to the 2014 project proposal:
“The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area.
"The reclad materials and new windows will represent a significant improvement to the environmental performance of the building and to its physical appearance.
"The design of the scheme as a whole has fully considered policy requirements, expectations and aspirations, fully taking into consideration the immediate and wider surroundings, particularly focussing on creating a wider environment that works as a coherent place."
The cladding was installed in sheets over insulation. It was this installation design that so accelerated the fire, not the material it was made from (aluminum). The cladding acted like a chimney, allowing the small fire on the eighth floor to race up the side of the building, moving vertically instead of horizontally. Such cladding fires have happened recently in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and China.
Matthew Needham-Laing, and architect and engineering lawyer was quoted in the New York Times as saying:
“It looks to me — and certainly a lot of people are saying the same thing — it looks to me like a cladding fire,” he said. The material in the cladding, he said, is “flame retardant, so it doesn’t catch fire as easily, but the temperatures you’re talking about are often 900, 1,000 degrees centigrade, and in those conditions, any material will generally burn, and they do, and the thick black smoke was sure to be from that insulation.”
Such destruction in such a tall high-rise (24 stories) will make search and recovery efforts slow and dangerous, Commander Cundy of the Metropolitan police said, indicating that the task may take months.
Reporters from The Guardian, one of London’s premiere newspapers, pressed Cundy on whether or not there would be charges filed against any of the engineers or architects who retrofitted the building with the dangerous cladding, but he refused to comment.