Is Living in A Tower Block A High Rise Risk?
Watching footage of the Grenfell Tower engulfed in flames, with residents standing waving in terror and hope in equal measures; seeing the desperate with no hope of survival choosing to jump to escape a more horrific way to die brought back all too starkly the scenes of September 11th 2001 in New York. Granted, a different set of circumstances and a larger scale disaster, but Grenfell Tower in itself, simply by being a high rise block was a disaster in the making. A catastrophe, therefore; waiting to happen. And it did, last night.
The cold hard truth is that this Island upon which we live simply isn’t big enough to house everyone who lives in it unless some stark choices are made in relation to removing the protection from development enjoyed by some national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Yes, we all love to go day tripping and holidaying in remote, unspoilt corners of greenery; amidst majestic peaks and cragged mountains. We like to explore ancient woods; meander through meadows full of wild flowers and hidden life; we want to be able to escape our urbanity and reach out into the wilderness. Yet it’s a wilderness that has a cost attached to it and the currency is people’s lives.
Grenfell Tower is the latest in a grim catalogue of greed and misplaced priorities that exist in the world of housing development. Some ten million pounds, it is reported, has recently been spent in refurbishing this particular high rise building but yet a sprinkler system was either not installed, or was not working last night. The exterior cladding used on the building did not meet Building Regulations in regards to protection from fire spreading. In an effort to maintain as much square footage for housing, there is only one central staircase in the building. One central means of escape for over 600 people living in 120 rooms within the block.
The Managing Landlords, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation also own another tower block which, inconveniently for them, caught fire back in October 2015, and Grenfell Tower seems to be a carbon copy of this incident. Despite being issued with an Enforcement Notice to improve fire safety in their buildings, it appears that the notice was not enforced enough and as a result tenants’ concerns as well as Building Regulations were overlooked during KCTMO’s recent refurbishment.
As I write, it is known that at least 6 people have died, and over 50 injured. Emergency services are still in attendance and there still appear to be people trapped in a building which many now fear may collapse. Yet SOMEHOW this was allowed to happen. SOMEHOW, a ten million pound refurbishment, in partnership with the local Council was allowed to sidestep, or at the very least appear to be very shoddy over such an important element in any construction or refurbishment. Safety.
I don’t like tower blocks. Not least because I’m claustrophobic and the thought of living above ground floor level and having to get into a lift – basically a tin can with a rope and pulley attached to it – to deliver me to an upper floor flat fills me with morbid dread. I also don’t like them because they are a blot on the landscape. You cannot make a tower block look pretty and unfortunately, you cannot disguise the fact that piling people on top of each other in very high buildings might address the housing shortage and take up less space but it does create more risk of Something Going Wrong, as perfectly and tragically demonstrated last night at Grenfell Tower.
However, as much as I don’t like them, tower blocks do provide multiple housing units in a condensed space and they are therefore seen as the future of housing in highly populated and densely crowded areas such as central London and other cities that attract people to live in them due to employment opportunities. Building a tower block on a square footage basis is (marginally) cheaper than having to buy a larger plot and building less housing and anyway, there simply isn’t the space to do that unless you start investigating removal of public facilities and green spaces to make way for vital housing.
They’re not a new invention either – although in this country they became more popular as a cheap and quick construction of multiple housing after the war, and this phase continued into the 1960’s – but no, historically, tower blocks have been around since Roman times. They’ve been around in Arab Egypt since the 10th century; China since the 16th century. So historically, they’ve been cramming lots of people into very tall buildings for a very long time, although Britain lagged behind at little bit, not getting its first tower block until 1951. Councils liked them because they were somewhere to house hapless people who’d been unfortunate enough to have their homes bombed in the war but also because they were vote winners as they were seen as futuristic and imposing symbols of post war progress.
Being of steel frame and concrete block construction, tower blocks were quick to build – could things get any better? Well, no. Not really, because in replicating what became a ‘proven’ formula throughout the building and construction industry, planners also replicated design faults too, in addition to potentially compromising structural integrity and of course, which leads neatly to the subject in hand – there is the little matter of fire safety and compliance.
Fire safety legislation for tower blocks was introduced in 2006 – but this only applied to newly built tower blocks – pre existing blocks built before 2006 and undergoing refurbishment do not fall under the law, with the result that tenants lives are being compromised by poor maintenance of fire safety equipment, failing or no sprinkler system in use, fire doors and entrance and exit doors not complying to the latest in safety standards, and of course – try squeezing 600 people (often from the poorer fringes of society and therefore perhaps less aware and less educated) – try squeezing 600 people into a 27 storey building and then relying on those residents not to smoke; not to use flammable materials in their flats; and ask them to furnish their flats with modern furniture which complies to fire safety standards and try and raise their awareness about minimising risk of fire through education and information notices in the building. There’s an easy answer – you can’t.
Providing fire compliant materials in retrofit – as is the case with the Grenfell Tower is problematic and costly – the recent refurbishment was carried out in a building fully occupied and whilst it was lauded as major refurbishment providing residents with more energy efficient homes with its new central heating system; new double glazed windows and new exterior insulation cladding – two of the things that it didn’t go so far as to provide were a new, secondary escape route for occupants and a working fire sprinkler system.
It is reported that residents and the Grenfell Action Trust had been campaigning for years for the building to be demolished. But then, where do you put the residents? In a new tower block? Or a hostel, because there isn’t anywhere else?
Sadly, when you refurbish an already crumbling and inadequate building, all you get is a cleaner and more modern looking crumbling and inadequate building. Retrofit of energy efficient solutions did not provide adequate fire safety and the legislation which is supposed to protect the tenants has so tragically failed, along with the fire sprinkler system.
So is living in a tower block a high rise risk? You bet it is.
MY HEARTFELT SYMPATHY AND CONDOLENCES TO THOSE AFFECTED AND TO THE FAMILIES AND FRIENDS OF THOSE WHO HAVE SADLY LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE GRENFELL TOWER FIRE.
©Amy J Steinberg 2017