COMMENTARY

Are We Building Fire Traps?

Grenfell Tower was an old 24-storey apartment block in London, completed in 1974. During its refurbishment in 2015–2016, a façade cladding was added in an effort to beautify the building, while providing insulation and reducing heating bills.

In the early morning of 14 June 2017, while most people were still sleeping, an unfortunate freezer fire near an apartment window ignited the façade. The presence of air gap and the polyethylene insulated layers in the façade caused the fire to spread upwards rapidly and wrap around the building in a short period of time, resulting in 71 casualties.

Other factors that contributed to this disaster included design, selection of building materials, as well as lack of fire safety measures. Grenfell Tower had a single staircase design, which is not allowed in many countries. Despite its recent refurbishment, there were no pressurisation of the lift lobby, fire protection system or automatic sprinkler system.

This could be due to structure load restrictions, space limitation or any other reasons unknown at this juncture until the British government completes its investigation.

The Grenfell Tower disaster is a lesson in not compromising or taking fire safety for granted. It is not a question of when a fire incident is going to happen, or whether it will happen at all, but rather whether our buildings are equipped with appropriate fire safety measures that can cope with any major fires and avoid property damage and casualties.

The underlying issue for fire safety has always been that it is a mandatory legislative requirement with no return on investment. Hence, many building owners resort to providing minimum fire protection systems just to satisfy building regulations instead of fully understanding fire risks and hazards. 

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