urban planning

A Year Has Passed Since the Grenfell Tower Fire. It Could Happen Again Anytime.

Grenfell Tower, a year ago today. Photo: Gurbuz Binici/Getty Images

Your children, your spouse, your food, your home—these sources of comfort are not supposed to kill you, but they do. When that happens, we rightly go hunting for causes beyond the immediate: guns on demand, a culture of misogyny, sloppy inspection regimes, and so on. The fire that shot through Grenfell Tower in London one year ago, on June 14, 2017, and left 71 residents dead, was a not just an appalling accident, but a massive policy and regulatory failure, a case of murder by neglient bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies are excellent blame-diffusion machines. Its crimes are often errors of omission, virtually without authorship. It’s obvious now that Grenfell Tower’s façade panels, each one a layer of flammable plastic sandwiched between aluminum sheets, should have been prohibited in the U.K., but it’s impossible to pinpoint precisely who failed to do so. Safety codes are built up over decades, periodically revised, and regularly compared to those in other parts of the world. Yet when the British government hired the distinguished engineer Dame Judith Hackitt to comb through the whole regulatory system of England and Wales last year, she described it as “not fit for purpose, leaving room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so.” In other words, the fire code that covers one of the world’s global capitals is a sham.

One year and multiple investigations after Grenfell Tower’s destruction, the details of what happened and how, and who’s to blame, are still murky. The search for a crime and its perpetrators rolls on — but one chilling possibility is that the conditions that led to the disaster were all perfectly legal. Worse, the fire resulted from an attempt to improve the very lives it ended. A police study concluded that while the original 24-story tower, erected in the 1970s, lacked such basic fire safety measures as sprinklers and two exit stairways, it was the cosmetic renovation of 2016 that turned the building into a killer. That’s when the exterior walls were faced with the kind of panels that are ubiquitous, cheap, and so dangerous that their presence now serves as an excuse to tear down and replace social housing projects all over the U.K.

According to a series of reports prepared for the official inquiry now under way, the fire most likely started at the rear of a refrigerator, spread to a newly installed and ill-fitting window, sneaked into a cavity packed with flammable insulation, and jumped out into the space between the wall and the cladding, where it hit an invigorating supply of air. Supercharged with oxygen, it ran up to the floor above, where it found another window, with another cavity and more fuel, broke the glass and slithered into the next apartment. The fire continued to climb until it hit the top of the building, where it ran along the tower’s decorative crown. Flaming bits of plastic dropped from the roofline, igniting parts of the façade below and starting fresh fires that repeated the same looping journey.

Thick manuals and endless sets of regulations exist to ensure that building fires are contained long enough for residents to escape and help to arrive. That’s why firefighters, following protocol, told Grenfell Tower residents to stay in their apartments rather than risk smoke-filled stairs. Surely something would slow the fire’s advance. Nothing did. Flames whipped so quickly up the sides that they consumed virtually the whole building in about an hour.

In a nearly book-length article in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan examines the ways that blame stuck almost immediately to certain politicians and the leaders of the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, which owns Grenfell Tower. He finds that the scapegoating muddies a more discouraging truth: a catastrophic building failure is a group effort.

… [A]ll the big decisions came quite appropriately from the TMO [Tenant Management Organisation], which commissioned the project; from Rydon, the builders; from Artelia UK, the project managers; from Studio E Architects, the principal designers; and IBI Group, which acted as planning consultants. These organisations between them made the tower what it became in the early hours of 14 June, when fire escaped from a kitchen and was funnelled rapidly upwards through the wide cavities and across the unstopped boundaries between the flats, combusting the Celotex insulation which in turn combusted the Reynobond aluminium panels. (The insulation was made by Saint Gobain UK and the panels were made by Arconic.) This pile of names will no doubt irritate the simplifiers during the several years it takes for the inquiry to provide an answer. But their existence supplies us with one answer now: the tower’s vulnerability lay in a network of negligence that was beyond the capacity of any one man, and beyond the failings of any one material. Some truths are just too long to put in a headline.

Add to O’Hagan’s credit roll the numberless experts, agencies, officials, policymakers, and other enablers who allowed that lethal fiasco to be built. As part of the ongoing government inquiry, José Torero, a University of Maryland fire-safety expert, remarked in a report that British law effectively treats safety as a matter of opinion. Supposed experts of ill-defined competency are called in to determine whether the complex façade “adequately resists the spread of fire” according to “relevant design guides.” Months after the fire, the Association of British Insurers showed that even the traditional methods of testing new façade materials by burning them can produce deceptively lulling conclusions. Under controlled conditions, small sections of intact new panels are lit by a wood fire. In the real world, plastic burns hotter than wood, large façades amplify flames, and cuts for ducts and vents expose combustible layers that the manufacturer intended to seal off.

The obvious question: If dozens of Londoners can die in a single night from a combination of lax regulations and wishful thinking, do Americans face the same dangers? Not exactly the same ones, no. Grenfell Tower’s aluminum panels, with their combustible polyethylene core, are prohibited in New York, and probably everywhere in the U.S. (It’s hard to be certain about that because building codes vary from state to state and city to city.) “New York has done a good job of reacting to disasters that have happened here, all the way back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory,” says Michael Arvanites, a fire-safety consultant for the Safety Group. “But we can always do a better job, and we are: we just passed 18 new safety laws.”

Rules can be tedious, redundant, conflicting, and picayune. They slow down construction, and the cost of complying is reflected in your mortgage payments or your rent. But properly formulated and backed up by inspections, they can prevent you from burning to death. New York’s Department of Buildings keeps a list of specific products that have been approved for use. A building owner who wants to add some new technology to that list must hire an independent consultant to follow a protocol called NFPA 285, which describes in detail how to test whether a building will burn from the outside. “You have to get it tested by someone qualified,” says Gus Sirakis, assistant commissioner for technical affairs at the Department of Buildings. “It’s not just PR.”

Of course laws don’t mean much if agencies don’t enforce them. In 2007, a fire broke out in the vacant Deutsche Bank building near the World Trade Center while it was being demolished. Firefighters turned on the water, only to discover that the standpipe had been cut, leaving their hoses dry. A report later enumerated a series of administrative failures: A disorganized bureaucracy killed two firefighters that day.

Neglectful management usually wreaks its damage more gradually. For years, NYCHA devoted far more energy to lying about lead paint than to doing anything about it. Two mayors stood by while the walls of public housing projects slowly poisoned the kids who lived within them. Now, in a $2 billion settlement, a negligent city will hand responsibility for managing NYCHA over to the federal government — the same federal government run by the man who boasted: “No president has ever cut so many regulations in their entire term, okay, as we have cut in less than a year.” That wasn’t actually true, but it was a statement of a dangerous desire.

A Year’s Passed Since Grenfell Tower. It Could Happen Again.