current affairs media sustainability

Grenfell Tower mustn’t stop renovation plans

This week’s headlines have been dominated by the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London. I imagine it has made the news internationally too, as it’s been a dramatic and striking incident. The fire may be out, but in many ways the story is only beginning. So many questions need answering about how it started, why the fire moved the way it did, and how this kind of disaster can be prevented in future.

Yesterday the radio was on the kitchen, and experts were speculating about the cladding that had recently been installed on the building. I mentioned to my wife that it was only a matter of time before someone started blaming green targets and insulation programmes, risking a backlash against the renovation of Britain’s out-dated tower blocks.

Sure enough, the front page of the Daily Mail today has ‘three lethal questions’, and the first of those is: ‘were green targets to blame for fire tragedy?’

There’s a short answer to that question: no, green targets are not to blame. Perhaps someone has cut corners in trying to meet green targets, but we don’t know that yet and it’s not the same thing.

It’s easy to see where this finger-pointing could lead. Most of Britain’s tower blocks have not been updated. When the next renovation gets underway and residents are consulted over external cladding, there are going to be all kinds of questions and fears. And rightly so. But the right response is to fit fireproof cladding, and fit it properly. The Mail has an article today about how fire retardant cladding would have cost £5,000 more, so it knows the difference. ‘Is cost-cutting to blame for fire tragedy?’ would be a better question. It’s also emerged that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower is banned in the US, making ‘Is inadequate legislation to blame for fire tragedy?’ a legitimate question too. Instead, editor Paul Dacre saw an opportunity to undermine climate action and couldn’t resist it.

External cladding is a vital technique for updating Britain’s housing stock. I have a 1920s single-brick terrace house, and we are planning to fit cladding this summer. It will reduce our household emissions. It will also reduce our energy costs, and make a more comfortable home – warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Where it has been fitted on tower blocks in the past, it makes a big difference to residents and their energy bills, as well as reducing emissions. It’s a triple-win intervention, and we can’t let renovation programmes be derailed by this tragedy.

We do of course need to make sure all cladding is appropriately fireproof and installed properly. Past projects will need to be reviewed and any unsafe cladding replaced. If there are products on the market that are not fit for purpose, those need to be regulated. Perhaps fitters need to be certified, or building inspectors need to look for specific fire risks. Cladding can be done perfectly safely.

People are angry and afraid at the moment, and that’s understandable. But let’s not leap to convenient scapegoating of green targets. And let’s make sure that prejudiced tabloid editors don’t use a national tragedy to undermine sustainability measures.


  1. We have had cladding applied externally to the building where I live. It consists of mineral wool bolted to the 40 cm thick concrete walls, with a finish of spray concrete on wire mesh. There are at least three problems.

    1) Security of the anchorage; the insulation has dropped around the openings.

    2) Sealing around doors, windows and at corners. There is a filling consisting of some kind of mastic. The concrete surface has been sprayed over the top but has cracked due to differential movement and poor adhesion to the sealant.

    3) Interstitial condensation. There is a temperature gradient. Damp air inside the building at a particular relative humidity could be at the dew point inside the insulation.

    This can be prevented by a vapour barrier on the INSIDE but one was not fitted. It should not be a problem in this instance, however, as the entire building has a powered ventilation system but potentially it is a problem. I have come across cases where it has been, including an entire roof deck which rotted due to moisture from interstitial condensation.

    I personally would not apply external insulation to a 9 in solid or 11 in cavity wall construction because of these risks. Internal insulation with a vapour barrier is effective but it loses 10 cm on the dimensions and the window detail needs to be designed. One option is to improve the local microclimate through tree planting.

    These old concrete blocks just need to be demolished. They are not good for anyone with children and apart from anything else they are an eyesore.

    The same applies to commercial high rise buildings which are also a potential disaster, undesirable urban design feature and overload the infrastructure. They were out of fashion for a while but unfortunately they have come back into fashion. In these days of remote working, they ought to be obsolete.

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