The UK cladding crisis (also referred to as the Cladding Scandal) is one of the most significant ongoing social crises in the UK. The crisis concerns many buildings that have been clad with combustible materials. The scandal was brought to light following the 2017 Grenfell fire tragedy, which claimed the lives of 72 people and injured more than 70 others.
In this post, we will explore the cladding crisis. We'll start with what cladding is and why it matters. Then we will look at the crisis itself, answering;
- How was Grenfell allowed to happen?
- How big is the problem?
- What is being done to fix it?
What Is Cladding And Why Does It Matter?
Cladding is the application of one material over another. In construction, this is usually a combination of an insulation layer and panelling fitted over the building’s outside. Cladding is designed to protect a building's structure from rain, wind and other natural elements. It may also offer additional benefits, such as providing insulation and noise control. You can also use cladding to achieve your desired aesthetic.
When done properly, with safe materials, cladding is great. An experienced cladding installer equipped with the right cladding tools can enhance a building’s aesthetic and protect it from the elements. Unfortunately, the cladding crisis is a story of greed and shortcuts taken at the expense of the safety of residents across the UK.
The Grenfell Tower Fire
Unfortunately, the alarm for the cladding crisis sounded too late when a fire broke out in the 24-storey tower block of flats in Kensington, London. The Grenfell Fire is the deadliest structural fire in the Uk since the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster in 1988. It is also the biggest residential fire in the UK since the Second World War.
But what went wrong to enable a disaster of this magnitude?
The first report on the Grenfell Fire Inquiry released in 2019 showed that the building's exterior (cladding and insulation) did not comply with safety regulations. This was a core factor in the spread of the fire.
Reducing Safety Measures
The cladding crisis is largely a byproduct of reduced safety measures which date back to the Deregulation Initiative of the 1980s. To fully understand how a crisis of this scale could happen, we first need to look back at over 30 years of deregulation. In the past few decades, policy and legislative changes loosened controls and safety measures enabling and even incentivising the use of inferior materials throughout the construction industry.
Part of the Deregulation Initiative saw the 1984 building act reduce 306 pages of building regulations to just 24 pages. Atop of the deregulation, the Conservative government introduced compulsory competitive tendering. This forced the government to compete with the private sector. In 1985, The National House Building Council became the first non-public sector body to compete with local authorities to check the regulatory compliance of building work.
As we moved into the 1990s, the ability to certify work as meeting regulations started to pass from independent bodies to those doing the work. This began with the Regulations Act 1991 allowed installers of gas heating suppliers to self certify. In 1997 the Building Research Establishment was privatised. This meant building materials were no longer safety tested by the public sector and were increasingly tested by their manufacturers.
As we headed into the 2000s, the Labour Government championed similar ideas to the Conservative Deregulation Initiative with their Best Value policy. The trend of self-certifying continued into the 2000s too. Competent Person Schemes introduced self-certification to 18 fields between 2002 and 2010. In this same timeframe, acquiring Fire Safety Certificates for public, commercial and non-single person dwellings changed. Annual public-sector Fire Service inspections were replaced with risk assessment by third parties. There were no mandatory qualifications for the assessors or timeframes for checks. Building owners or landlords hired these third parties.
By 2019, the time of the first Grenfell report, an approximate 85% of building work that required notifying building control bodies were self-certified.
What Cladding Was Used At Grenfell?
It is easier to understand how such unsuitable and dangerous materials managed to be fitted to the Grenfell tower once you consider the environment the work was being carried out in. In this next section, we will look at exactly what the issue with the cladding was and what made it so dangerous.
Grenfell Tower was fitted with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding as part of a £9 Million refurbishment project completed in May 2017. ACM has many uses in construction, such as cladding for false ceilings and partitions. It is lightweight and sturdy, often used in temporary structures such as trade show booths. ACM is also a popular material in the signage industry.
However, the core element of ACM is usually polyethylene (PE) or polyurethane (PU). These have low fire resistance and therefore are not suitable for living spaces. As a result, its use has been banned entirely in some places. In addition to Grenfell and other instances in the UK, this type of material has been involved in high rise building fires in France, Australia, the UAE, South Korea, and the USA.
Why Was AMC Cladding Used?
We know clearly that the AMC cladding should not have been used on the high rise. However, we also know how relaxed regulations and testing allowed it to be. But why was the cladding selected in the first place?
The specific cladding used on Grenfell (Celotex) was deemed to meet the thermo-efficiency goals and was thin enough to achieve the planned design. However, design and thermo-efficiency were not the only considerations. There was a more flame resistant option, but it was not as cheap. With less stringent testing - a result of years of reductions in safety measures - many construction companies choose less safe materials, often with a financial incentive.
How Big Is The UK Cladding Crisis
The use of inadequate materials was not an incident isolated to the Grenfell refurbishment. Many companies capitalised on the opportunity to save money from cheaper (yet less safe) materials. So how big is the problem?
Scotland had already highly restricted the use of ACM cladding through building and planning regulations. Welsh and Northern Irish laws were more similar to English laws, however, there were no uses of ACM in Northern Ireland and relatively few in Wales. On the other hand, England found over 460 cases of ACM like the kind used at Grenfell on buildings over 18 metres by January 2021. By this time, 329 had removed the cladding, including 231 that had completed remedial work.
Investigations from the aftermath of Grenfell also revealed the use of unsafe cladding on other non-residential buildings. For instance, the 52-bed trauma unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital was temporarily closed due to concerns about fire safety issues posed by the cladding.
The problem extends beyond AMC
Whilst AMC was initially highlighted as the main concern, further investigations into Grenfell, the Barking Riverside Fire, and The Bolton Cube Fire revealed other types of cladding also presented a significant risk. This was due to builders failing to comply with regulations and cladding being falsely marketed as meeting regulations. Some of the other unsafe cladding had been used to replace AMC cladding on some buildings.
And the safety concerns were not limited to cladding. Concerns were raised about a wide range of areas affecting all types of buildings.
In addition to the use of AMC, problems included;
- Combustibility of cladding materials, including high-pressure laminate
- Combustible balconies
- Lack of firebreaks in the cavities between walls and insulation
- Firedoors that don't comply with regulations
By June 2020, the government estimated around 1700 buildings over 18 metres tall in England required urgent remediation. This number accounted for remediation work that had already been carried out for AMC cladding. According to The Parliamentary Housing Committee, a further 9600 buildings were likely to have combustible cladding.
Tackling The Cladding Crisis
As investigations continue, the problem only seems to grow. More concerns are raised, and even solutions to the AMC cladding are later found to be a safety risk. Is the problem being fixed? Is there an end in sight for the cladding crisis?
One of the short term solutions to improper construction and unsuitable materials in tall buildings has been a change to evacuation policies. Previously, as it was believed a fire could be contained to a single flat, only those in the affected flat were evacuated in the event of a fire. This has been overhauled to a full evacuation of the building. This, however, posed its challenges. Many of the fire alarm systems in the buildings were created to work with the old evacuation policy, only alerting the affected flat. Whilst buildings waited for newer alarm systems to be introduced, 24-hour fire warden patrols (called Waking Watch) were put in place.
While short-term fixes were put in place, work began implementing long-term fixes. Remedial work was needed on buildings throughout the UK. In most cases, the leaseholder was responsible for the costs of this work. Some builders and other parties responsible for building non-regulatory-compliant buildings had gone out of business, making it unlikely for many leaseholders to recuperate costs.
In 2018 the government announced £400 million in funding to replace ACM cladding on social housing. Later, in 2019, they announced that £200 million would go to ACM remediation for high rises in the private sector. Then, in 2020, a pledge of £200 million was set for similar works for privately-owned blocks. A further £1 Billion was announced as funds to replace Non-AMC cladding that did not comply with legislation.
In 2021, The Waking Watch Fund was opened to provide buildings with the necessary fire alarm systems for full evacuations.
In February 2021, the government announced a 5-Point plan alongside a £3.5 billion cladding replacement fund. The plan looked at removing unsafe cladding from buildings over 18 metres and providing loans to leaseholders of 11-18 metres of buildings.
However, there were noticeable absences from the plan, such as:
- Funding for work on lower buildings
- Remediation of other fire-safety problems (e.g.: lack of fire-breaks in the cavity between the walls and the cladding)
- Funding for waking watches
- Support for fixing non-compliant fire-escape routes
New Rules and Regulations
In addition to the funding of remedial works, there have been several changes to laws and legislation surrounding fire safety and the use of materials in construction in the years since the Grenfell disaster.
Fire Safety Act
One of the biggest responses to the Grenfell Tower fire was the introduction of the Fire Safety Act 2021. The Act, which concerns buildings in England and Wales, changes the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
The main provisions of the Act are:
- Information about a building's external walls must be shared with the local fire and rescue service by those responsible for the building's fire safety.
- Building managers or owners must conduct annual inspections of flat entrance doors and monthly inspections of lifts. Any faults with lifts must be reported to the local fire and rescue service.
- The building owner or manager of a building with two or more flats must provide residents with access to evacuation and fire safety instructions.
- A public register of fire risk assessments will be established.
- Additional future changes to identify premises covered by the fire safety order.
Building Safety Bill
The Building Safety Bill, like the Fire Safety Act, was put in place to prevent another incident like Grenfell and the other fire outbreaks mentioned in this article. A Core focus of the Building Safety Bill is to empower residents to hold builders and developers to account. The bill implements tougher sanctions for builders and developers that fail to meet regulations and threaten the safety of residents. A Building Safety Regulator will oversee the new regime.
Will We Fix The Cladding Crisis
Though we are several years removed from the Grenfell disaster, there are decades of damage that needs reversing. As we have discussed, there is much work to solve the issue. However, as more problems are revealed, it may seem like an uphill battle. And the full scope of the crisis extends far beyond cladding. Perhaps there is a fix, and the issues may be resolved. But this won't be a quick or easy task. Maybe things are heading in the right direction, but the finish line isn't in sight.