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Building safetyGrenfell fire aftermath: how 20th-century buildings can be made safer, not more dangerous

By Laura B Alvarez

Published 16 June 2017

Despite the horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower, UK regulations for tall buildings are ahead of the curve in comparison with other countries. There have been huge improvements in construction materials and technological solutions throughout the modern era. And testing and certification methods have became even more rigorous, to ensure the quality of new products. Of course, many people are now asking what more could have been done to prevent the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell blaze. The truth is, while architects and engineers can work to mitigate the risk of fire, it cannot be completely eliminated. The addition of some materials to buildings, such as cladding, will obviously now come under scrutiny. But there are several improvements that can be made to old 20th-century tower blocks like Grenfell, to make them safer places to live.

Despite the horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower, UK regulations for tall buildings are ahead of the curve in comparison with other countries. There have been huge improvements in construction materials and technological solutions throughout the modern era. And testing and certification methods have became even more rigorous, to ensure the quality of new products.

Of course, many people are now asking what more could have been done to prevent the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell blaze. The truth is, while architects and engineers can work to mitigate the risk of fire, it cannot be completely eliminated. The addition of some materials to buildings, such as cladding, will obviously now come under scrutiny. But there are several improvements that can be made to old 20th-century tower blocks like Grenfell, to make them safer places to live.

When it comes to managing the risk of fire, builders and architects are guided by three simple principles: prevent risk, evacuate users and minimize damage – in that order. But updating or “retrofitting” older buildings to meet modern safety standards isn’t always straightforward. That’s why architects, builders and other experts work alongside fire engineers to ensure evacuation systems are adequate for the building’s structure, function and users.

There is no single formula. Each building is studied in detail by a design team, which works together to decide what approach is best. It’s important to consider how the building is being used; for instance, while offices are at risk because they contain large amounts of flammable stationary and electronic equipment, in residential units the biggest risks arise from cooking, heaters and other domestic equipment, which can start fires.

Human factors such as forgetfulness, physical limitations and human error must also play a role in fire safety planning – especially when children or elderly people are frequent users. People are also more relaxed at home, which can lead them to lose awareness of some of the risks. People often leave pans on the hob or place heaters near curtains and other combustibles for example. A team must bear all these factors in mind, as they decide how to approach each project: smoke and heat detectors can prevent some accidents, placing sockets away from windows can also help.