UK Cladding Problem Widespread; U.S. Mostly Safe

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Robison Wells
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Fallout from the Grenfell Tower, which killed 80 due in large part to the cladding, a form of exterior siding. The cladding allowed for a flammable, chimney-like structure that spread a fire at a catastrophic rate.

Scrambling to prevent additional fires, the British Department of Communities has tested nearly 600 high rises in the UK, and found that 181 failed to meet safety requirements.

That revelation came at the same time as it was learned that several tenants had been illegally subletting apartments to others, meaning that it is impossible to get an accurate count of deaths. Attorney General Jeremy Wright said: “Every piece of information will help the authorities accurately identify who was in the flats at the time of the fire. I hope this statement provides some much-needed clarity to residents and the local community, and encourages anyone with information to come forward.”

On the other side of the world, a taskforce in Australia has been working on the aluminum-composite cladding problem since 2014, when it was found that 200 properties had the highly combustible material. That taskforce was launched to after a huge fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands.

Labor deputy premier John Thwaites said that action was being taken, but not fast enough. “What I know is that Planning Minister Richard Wynne has asked this taskforce to accelerate action. He’s concerned that action isn’t taking place fast enough. The advice from various fire authorities is that there is, right around Australia, widespread non-compliance with the building code. There has to be a system of compliance or people aren’t going to be safe.”

In the United States, this kind of cladding has been illegal in most states for years, but recently a few states and the District of Columbia have relaxed building codes, allowing the material that doesn’t pass a fire test.

The cladding has been known to be dangerous and flammable for quite some time. The International Building Code has banned it for any structure more than 40 feet tall. Thirty years ago the National Fire Protection Association devised a test for the flammability of cladding. It has been a political hotspot as builders, developers, and regulatory commissions have argued in the past in the age-old debate of cost vs. benefit.

“When a code is well written and properly anticipates problems,” says James Valiulis, “people observe a lack of incidents, and often assume that the code must be asking for overkill.” But, he says, that can also be a sign that “the code got it exactly right.”

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