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Fires in high-rise buildings: a material problem?

On 22 December, a flat burned down in South Korea, killing 29 people. Immediately, comparisons where made with the disaster that happened this summer, when London was startled by the news of the Grenfell Tower fire, which caused 71 deaths. In both disasters, multiple things added to the high death counts, such as insufficient escape exits. However, the fire safety of the building materials also left much to be desired, causing experts to wonder about regulations.

The cause
In Grenfell Tower, investigators found that the blaze started in a fridge freezer, catching alight on the fourth floor of the 24-storey flat due to a fault. Firefighters put out the appliance, but the flames still spread.

The cause of the fire in South Korea is unclear as of yet.

The additional causes
Occupants of high-rise buildings are at a higher risk during fires than low-rise premises. In the case of the Grenfell fire, the building block had only one staircase, which made escaping more difficult. In addition, the building did not have sprinklers, which would have prevented the growth of the fire.

The fire in South Korea was “a fire trap waiting to happen”, with insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access to fire trucks.

The cladding
The new cladding of Grenfell Tower, only applied in May, was quickly pointed out as likely culprit, as witnesses said the flames spread up the exterior of the building. The cladding was low-cost and made of Reynolux-coated aluminium sheets with a Reynobond polyethylene core. Especially polyethylene burns incredibly quickly.

The cladding material in South Korea was made of a cement and foam sandwich, which are widely used for insulation, but prone to spreading fire.

A material problem?
In August, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) published the results of their large-scale fire safety tests, intended for experts to better understand how different types of cladding panels behave with different types of insulation in a fire.

The last test was done with a wall cladding system consisting of aluminium composite material cladding with a fire-resistant polyethylene filler and stone wool insulation, like Grenfell had. This combination of materials passed the test.

However, a panel of experts noted that cladding and insulation materials can vary between manufacturers and can have different calorific values. The way materials have been fitted and maintained can also affect the safety of the cladding system.

With a growing population, high-rise buildings are a sensible solution to lack of space in cities. Obviously, choosing fireproof materials, with the addition of other precautions, such as a sprinkler system and several escape routes, will make living in high-rise buildings more safely.

Fire safety is not only important in buildings, of course. Christmas and New Year are coming up, which have the highest amount of burns. We wish everyone safe holidays!

Photos: Reuters (via The Sun) / AFP (via Channel News Asia)


  1. M.F. Plas says:

    meer informatie over deze problematiek is verstrekt tijdens dgmr symposium op 28 september en te vinden op de website van DGMR:

    falende uitvoering mbt afdichting in verticale gevel profielen en ook bewust genomen risico om kosten te besparen door niet brandwerende panel te kiezen om geld te besparen zijn hoofdoorzaken naar ik begreep

    brand in spouw is zondermeer een onderbelicht risico, zeker omdat het lastig te zien is, moeilijk of niet te bereiken en risico heeft naar binnen te slaan en in diverse woningen brand te veroorzaken of dodelijke rook af te geven
    er is veel lezenswaardig op de site van DGMR.
    ook het blad brandposten van het zweedse Rise instituut publiceert hierover veel nuttigs.
    Gelukkig Nieuwjaar