The deadly fire that engulfed London’s Grenfell Tower was fueled by commonly used “green energy” upgrades found on tens of thousands of buildings across the world, sparking concerns that a similar event could happen in the U.S.
It’s unknown what sparked the Grenfell Tower fire Monday, but the exterior cladding, or exterior insulation, added in 2015 to comply with “green energy” requirements, allowed the fire to quickly engulf the building.
Thousands of U.S. buildings also have cladding to increase energy efficiency, but that doesn’t mean that a Grenfell-like fire is likely to happen, according to Robert Solomon, who heads the building fire protection division at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
“I don’t see this happening in the U.S.,” Solomon told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “We actually apply a very constrictive and restrictive test protocol to those types of systems on buildings.”
“There’s not a comparable system applied to the cladding in the U.K.,” Solomon said.
NFPA is a 121-year-old group founded by the insurance industry to set building and fire codes that local governments can adopt. The group puts any building efficiency upgrades through rigorous fire testing.
Experts say that flames were able to engulf Grenfell Tower so quickly because a space between the cladding and the building created a chimney effect through which the fire rapidly spread upwards.
“I have never seen a fire that has engulfed an entire building like this in a career of more than 30 years,” Matt Wrack, who heads the Fire Brigades Union, told The Telegraph.
“It could be that this is the quest for sustainability trumping other concerns,” echoed Dr. Jim Glockling of the Fire Protection Association.
Lots of high-rise buildings use cladding to increase energy efficiency and to give the building a more modern look. Drive through downtown Washington, D.C., for example, and you’ll see dozens of high-rises with glassy exteriors. That’s cladding.
U.S. builders have been using cladding since the 1970s, but mostly on low-rise buildings, so any fires were small and nothing on the scale of the recent London fire, which killed at least 30 people with dozens more wounded or missing.
Since that time, U.S. localities have developed strict fire safety testing programs and building codes to mitigate fire risks, according to Solomon. There’s no equivalent fire safety testing system in the U.K., Solomon said.
“These cladding systems are put on to help energy efficiency, to help with moisture, to help with snow and rain,” he said. “They also have an aesthetic quality.”
Plan to add cladding to U.S. buildings go through a testing regime, called NFPA 285. The testing regime simulates how a fire would spread through various building materials used to make cladding.
Builders then work to use materials that can limit the spread of fires. They must install cladding exactly how it’s laid out in the fire simulation.
“If you’re going to do this cladding system, this is the test protocol you have to pass,” Solomon said. “It’s very difficult to pass.”
The company operating Grenfell installed cladding in 2015 as part of a $12 million retrofit. The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, which owns the building, installed a cheaper cladding made of “powder-coated aluminium panels that are usually filled with plastic insulation, which is flammable,” The Guardian reported.
The building owners planned on putting in fire barriers on each floor, but it’s not clear if they ever did, The Guardian reported.
Glockling told The Guardian that his own tests on the cladding found if the barriers had any breaches, by a pipe or other object, “a chimney effect may quickly develop that will cause the very rapid consumption of the insulation and expansion of the damage area.”
Hundreds of activists took to the streets of London Friday to criticize Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of the fire’s aftermath and rail against officials for ignoring years of warnings about fire risks at Grenfell Tower.
May ordered a full investigation into the fire as officials say the death toll from the fire could rise to more than 100 people.
As for the U.S., a Grenfell-style fire may be unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it could never happen or that officials and building owners shouldn’t stay vigilant.