How Aluminium Cladding May Have Factored Into London's Deadly Tower Fire

Experts and politicians are pointing fingers in an effort to explain what caused the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed at least 12 and injured dozens more on Wednesday. Quite unfortunately, all fingers appear to be pointing in the same direction, at a new aluminium rainscreen cladding installed, in part, to make the building more attractive to wealthy neighbours in luxury flats nearby.

Photo: Getty

Grenfell Tower is part of an estate housing complex -- that's the British term for public housing project -- in the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This area of London is famous for its tremendous disparity in wealth, since it's home to some of the most valuable real estate in the world as well as some of the city's poorest residents. Grenfell is where many of those poverty-stricken Londoners called home, and a group of residents now say their warnings of dangerous conditions "fell on deaf ears" for years leading up to the fire. A £8.6 million ($14.5 million) renovation wrapped up in May 2016, and now, it appears that some decisions made during that facelift may have fuelled this week's fire in a very deadly way.

Part of the motivation for Grenfell's renovation, planning documents suggest, was to make the tower look better to its neighbours. That document, obtained by The Independent, claims the addition of new aluminium cladding "will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area". It justified the choice of materials "to accord with the development plan by ensuring that the character and appearance of the area are preserved and living conditions of those living near the development suitably protected". Those living nearby, of course, are some of the richest people in London. You'll probably recognise the neighbourhood just to the south of Grenfell Tower from the '90s Hugh Grant movie:

Image: Google Maps

Installing aluminium cladding isn't inherently bad. The renovation detail was not only aimed at improving Grenfell's appearance but also the building's insulation. The space between the aluminium façade and the structure itself appears to have been stuffed with insulation. Fireproof insulation is expensive, and so some experts suggest that Rydon, the company responsible for the renovation, may have used cheap, non-fireproof insulation instead. This would have been a big mistake.

"[Cladding] produces a wind tunnel and also traps any burning material between the rain cladding and the building," fire expert and surveyor Arnold Tarling told The Independent. "So had it been insulated per se, the insulation could fall off and fall away from the building, but this is all contained inside."

Mike Penning, a member of Parliament and former fire minister, similarly said, "The cladding was clearly spreading the fire."

Grenfell Tower's scorched cladding and what appears to be insulation material. (Photo: Getty)

Another fire safety expert, Angus Law from the University of Edinburgh, told the press that reports of the Grenfell Tower bore "similarities with other fires that have occurred recently around the world". One such fire was the New Year's Eve skyscraper fire in Dubai, when flames spread up the side of the Address Downtown hotel at breakneck pace as debris rained down onto the streets below. It was later determined that the cladding used on the hotel "did not meet fire safety standards". The misuse of aluminium cladding has also been named as a major cause for other, similar tower fires in Dubai.

It's too soon to say what caused the deadly Grenfell Tower fire with any certainty. Rydon released a statement saying their work "met all required building control, fire regulation and health & safety standards". The residents' group that had complained for years about dangerous conditions -- including "continuous power surges", faulty wiring, and the lack of proper safety instructions -- said in a blog post they had "predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time".

Some reports say the fire started with the explosion of an electrical appliance. But towers are generally designed to contain fires to small areas. They shouldn't light up "like a nightdress," as one bystander put it.

Nevertheless, the notion that the management company installed the aluminium cladding, in part, for cosmetic reasons is more than unsettling. Their is a distinct possibility that improper installation and flammable insulation played a part in the loss of homes and lives.


    I'll wait for an official investigation into the incident before I start blaming rich neighbours for a building going up in flames. If the allegations are true that the cladding/insulation or poor maintenance led to the fire, then I'll blame the developers instead of trying to treat this as another example of class warfare.

      If the cladding was to code at the time (no doubt it was signed off by certifiers as required by the local authority) then no one is to blame.

      However, improvements to the building standards code would obviously come next.

      How rational...

      I agree. Making the building look better is also beneficial to those who live there, is it not?

      Regardless, as you say if they've done a dodgy job with dodgy materials then clearly that's an issue.

      Yes, a pretty disgusting piece of writing. Building facades being applied for aesthetics and not just functional utilitarianism is hardly new.

      Tragedies like these are always a chain of mistakes, oversights etc that lead to disaster and those will be ascertained. Attempting to frame this as an example of class warfare in the meantime is fake news.

      A pretty remarkable display of ignorance here (assuming ignorance as opposed to bloody mindedness).

      Assuming you didn't understand the article, these flats are not private dwellings as some of the posters seem to imagine. They are basically welfare housing for the poorest of society.

      So no, their property values wouldn't have been boosted by an 'attractive facade'. That is indeed for their rich neighbours' benefit. Those places are disgusting pits to live in, coating it externally isn't going to make that any less unpleasant for the inhabitants.

      Whether or not the cladding was responsible for the tragedy is another issue and if that is the case, then it does indeed suggest a conversation needs to be had where the safety of poor people should be more important than the profits of the rich - as a first port of call in any planning decision.

      And unless you're terribly naive and/or ideologically blinkered, you'd know perfectly well that in the vast majority of cases worldwide it most certainly is not the case.

        jesus mate, I've spent time in welfare housing in London and they're not 'disgusting pits'

        The cladding was insulation, probably to reduce the energy bills as well as increase the value of the land for the council owners who will later sell it off to gentrify the area and build another council estate on the cheap further away from where the residents work. A tactic in London particularly that is well documented in the media.

          Hi beats,

          Let's take your words for consideration like increased land values, insurance and real estate. If the building authorities already knew the fire risk and ignoring the resident's union complaints and installing aluminium panels for millions of dollars, what's the notion?

            The resident complaints were about the road access to the building, lack of a fire alarm or sprinkler system, only one escape route, rubbish piling up and placement of boilers and piping. Not the cladding. Sure the landlord knew of the complaints, but if the building was otherwise up to code have they broken the law? I don't know. We'll find out soon enough.
            I'm not sure what your question refers to beyond that.

        I did read the article. I read it so much that I realised that they stated that they don't know what the cause of the fire was nor whether or not construction or renovations contributed to the fire starting or accelerating. I know that it's public housing and it doesn't matter one bit to my post.

        Absolutely none of what you've posted changes my position one bit. Christ, not every disaster that befalls the disadvantaged is due to the rich. The rich didn't force the council or developer to clad it in material that may (or may not!) have contributed to the fire. Jesus the embers have barely died and SFA has been released about the cause, but Gizmodo US couldn't resist an article trying to dress this up as class warfare for people who need their politically-charged feel good moment of hate for the morning.

          Your position won't change because you're right wing, and quite frankly, probably don't care that much about the poors.

          That bias is pretty clear when you separate the developer from 'the rich'. What do you think a property developer IS?

          That's the point. Being a rich person, whose focus is on becoming richer, said developer is unlikely to have sat down and said 'right, let's spend money and effort on finding a solution that is best for the tenants, God love their povvo little selves'. Instead, as you'd know if you've lived in human society, the meeting would have gone along the lines of 'WHAT IS THE CHEAPEST SOLUTION I CAN GET TO MAXIMISE MY PROFITS'.

          And that's why this is a conversation being had, because this sort of thing happens everywhere, every day, and people suffer for the greed of others.

          But if you vote conservative, I imagine that's not a big issue.

            Lol, what? I'm centrist, leaning left. I just don't boil everything down to class war and jump to conclusions. I don't attribute malicious conspiratorial greed to what was more likely ignorance or downplay of risk. None of that excuses them if it transpires that the material did directly contribute to making the fire worse - but I don't jump to the assumption that it was done purely because 'the rich hate the poor'.

            I don't know why you think I live in some ivory tower. I deal with the 'povvos' and walk into housing commission sites every day at work.

    You're blaming neighbours preferring not to look on an ugly building for the builder using, in contravention of building regulation, flammable insulation?

    Nevertheless, the notion that the management company installed the aluminium cladding, in part, for cosmetic reasons is more than unsettling.

    No it's not. If your neighbor said they were putting cladding on their house to improve its looks, I would sure hope your brain doesn't process that as an unsettling decision.

      If your neighbour put fire-fuelling cladding on YOUR house to make it more attractive, you'd probably be of a different opinion.

      The alleged narrative here is that rich folk petitioned their local representative to gentrify the unsightly public housing, possibly over canapes. Then the public housing burns down, killing people. Questions are appropriate.

      If the cladding didn't meet regulation and was approved anyway, it looks very bad. If the cladding was a significant part of the expense over more fundamental standards (like wiring or modernised fire safety), it's also very bad.

      Despite the significant recent uptick in adoption of high-density dwellings (Brisbane is exploding with multi-use "hub" developments), fire safety and regulation is still not advancing quickly enough.

      The Victorian bushfires sparked significant consideration into how low density housing is managed across the eastern states, but if a tragedy is required to alter high density standards it's going to cost many more lives.

    Wasn't this the same reason for the twin towers to burn down so quickly?

    Similar cladding issue with docklands fire In Melbourne a few years back

      And they say there's thousand of buildings here in Australia with the same cladding. Glad I live in a house.

    Maybe it's best to actually wait till the building isn't still on fire before you start assigning blame to rich people.

    WTF Gizmodo?

    The thing I worried about now is that those terrorist (crazy people!) will just target these buildings with fire bombs and watch the poor burn and listen to the rich bitch about the situation in a political correct manner.

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