NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. — While U.S. building codes require new and renovated commercial buildings to meet fire safety standards, a code expert told AEC professionals attending the Construct conference Wednesday that a deadly fire like the one at Grenfell Tower in the U.K. two years ago isn’t out of the question in the U.S.
“Can’t say it can’t happen here,” said Lorraine Ross, owner and president of Intech Consulting. “Things happen.”
Ross noted, for example, the metal composite materials (MCM) panel installed one the exterior during the building's renovation, which took place between 2014-2016, was specified to have a fire-retardant, polyethylene (FR-PE) core. The preliminary investigation shows that the panel might have had a FR-PE core, said the consultant.
Ross, who attended a fire conference in July that touched on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, said investigations into the tower fire are ongoing.
This June, survivors of Grenfell Tower fire, along with the families of the more than 70 people who died, sued product suppliers in a U.S. state court in Philadelphia, alleging that their products helped spread the fire. The lawsuit names appliance manufacturer Whirlpool, cladding manufacturer Arconic Inc. and foam insulation maker Celotex as defendants. A Whirlpool refrigerator allegedly started the fire.
The 250 plaintiffs accuse Arconic and Celotex of supplying material that helped spread the fire so quickly. The lawsuit also alleges that the burning insulation released cyanide gas that killed some of the residents of the multifamily building.
The insulation and cladding used in the renovation of the Grenfell Tower, which was built in the early 1970s, have been taken off the market. Grenfell’s aluminum cladding had a polyethylene insulation core.
Presenter Tom Robertson, a business unit manager for Atlas Roofing Corp., said Grenfell’s new exterior wall assembly did not comply with British fire testing standards. He added that even if the walls were stuffed with rockwool insulation and not foam, the walls still would have failed testing.
In addition to the material issues, other factors that contributed to the deadly fire include the lack of an integrated sprinkler system and no smoke detection-alarm system, Robertson said. Also, many subcontractors worked on the renovation project, but there was little communication among them, he said.
To demonstrate the importance of sprinklers, Robertson highlighted a massive fire at the Marina Torch Tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2017 that did not end in loss of life. The 79-story building, which opened in 2011, is considered one of the tallest multifamily structures in the world. He said the building, which was under renovation at the time of the fire, was modern in comparison to Grenfell and equipped with fire sprinklers.
A previous, non-deadly 2015 fire at the Marina Torch was blamed on flammable siding, the New York Times reported.
In the U.S., commercial buildings must pass NFPA 285, the standard National Fire Protection Association test for multi-story exterior wall assemblies containing combustible components. The test assesses the ability of the exterior wall to resist and contain fire.
“It’s all about not wanting fire to spread,” Robertson said.
Ross said any exterior wall on buildings Types I, II, III and IV containing combustible materials must pass NFPA 285. They do not have to pass ASTM E119, the Test Methods for Fire Tests of Building Construction and Materials test, which depend on height, occupancy capacity, fire separation distances and other factors.
NFPA 285 was updated in 2018 and could be part of the International Building Code, IBC 2020, Ross added.