Original Grenfell Tower External Wall Was 'Entirely Non-Combustible' Before Refurbishment, Inquiry Hears

Kathryn Snowdon
Grenfell Tower Inquiry hears that Grenfell Tower external wall was 'entirely non-combustible' prior to refurbishment.

The external wall of Grenfell Tower was “entirely non-combustible” before it was refurbished in 2012 and no provisions were made for disabled people to evacuate the 24-storey building in an emergency, the inquiry into the fire has heard.

Speaking at the hearing on Monday, Dr Barbara Lane said there was “no evidence” that those involved in the refurbishment of the tower, completed in 2016, tried to find an “alternative approach” to comply with building regulations.

Expert witness Dr Lane, a chartered fire safety engineer and director at specialist design group Arup, gave a presentation to the inquiry two weeks after her damning report highlighted a host of building safety hazards at Grenfell.

Outlining the code of practice for fire safety guidance in the design, management and use of residential buildings, Dr Lane pointed to section 29.2 which states:

External walls should be constructed using material that does not support fire spread and therefore endanger people in or around the building.

Flame spread over or within an external wall construction should be controlled to avoid creating a route for rapid fire spread bypassing compartment floors or walls.

This is particularly important where a stay put strategy is in place.

Combustible materials should not be used in cladding systems and extensive cavities. 

External wall surfaces near other buildings should not be used readily ignitable, to avoid fire spread between buildings.

She told the inquiry that, prior to the tower’s refurbishment, the external wall of Grenfell was “entirely non-combustible”.

Approved Document B of the building regulations lays down measures required to keep tall buildings safe from a blaze, including the ability to contain internal and external fire spread and the provision of access to emergency vehicles, the inquiry was told.

Dr Lane’s report into the fatal blaze said Grenfell did not comply with these building regulations following a refurbishment.

However, a provision states the document is for “practical guidance” and there “may well be alternative ways of achieving compliance”.

But Dr Lane said during her presentation at Holborn Bars: “I have no evidence that such an alternative approach was considered in matters relating to Grenfell Tower and therefore will not mention the concept of an alternative approach again.”

Addressing the issue of compartmentation, which is designed to keep a fire within the area where it originated, such as an individual flat, Dr Lane said there are no statutory regulations for residential buildings to put measures in place to aide the evacuation of people who ‘require assistance’, such as those who are disabled.

Survivors and local residents marked the one-year anniversary of the blaze last week.

Discussing the means of escape, Dr Lane said: “A person requiring assistance will also need to escape from their flat to the lobby.

“Once they are out in the lobby, they are now separated from the immediate effects of the fire in the flat, however protection measures for the lobby are not intended to provide indefinite protection and it may not be safe for for a person to remain within the lobby.”

Dr Lane outlined the following options available to a person requiring assistance to escape:

  • Escape using the stairs if they are able

  • Use an evacuation lift, with assistance from building management, if such assistance is available

  • Use the firefighting lift with assistance from the fire brigade

  • Be carried down the stairs by firefighters, building management staff or potentially their neighbours.

“There is no provision required in the statutory guidance for residential buildings, unlike other building types, to provide equipment for those persons, so there is no provision made for them to either contact building management, should they even be present in a building, nor to communicate directly with the fire service present in the building,” she said.

“The person can only make a personal 999 call. In other building types refuges with communication devices are required.”

Last month the inquiry heard harrowing accounts from bereaved family members of disabled and elderly residents left unable to escape the blaze.

Nazanin Aghlani told the Grenfell Inquiry that Kensington and Chelsea council’s rehousing team were partly to blame for the death of her mother, Sakineh Afrasehabi, for placing her on the 18th floor of the residential block.

Aghlani said her mother’s “human right to escape” was impeded, with the council’s own housing department recognising in 2003 that she should not be living in a property higher than the fourth floor.

Aghlani said her mother was partially sighted, and could only move around with the aid of a walker. 

“I emphasise that was in 2003 ... After being refused many suitable properties, after 16 years of waiting, she was rehoused in 2016 into flat 151 on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower,” she said.

Dr Lane also addressed the “stay put” policy, which has become the focus of much debate since the fire.

Her report published earlier this month said that residents should have been evacuated much earlier, after the stay put strategy failed within about 30 minutes of the first phone call being made to emergency services.

But she said the strategy was not one of “fire brigade policy”, adding that it is enshrined in statutory regulations.

Dr Lane added that the “very basis” of the policy relied upon the success of active fire protection measures that proactively tackle blazes, such as smoke extraction systems; passive measures, such as fire doors and fire-resisting walls; and defence in-place measures, such as fire hoses.

Such systems should allow a fire to be contained within the flat of origin, rather than spreading like it did in the disaster last June.

“The statutory guidance makes no provision within the building for anything other than a stay-put strategy,” she told the hearing.

The inquiry continues.