It has been more than the week since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, and though the event is beginning to fall off front pages, the London air remains thick with confusion as to how such a terrible disaster could be allowed to happen. Details remain nebulous, such as the exact type of cladding and, sadly, the number of casualties, but what is clear is that high-rise construction in the United Kingdom will be subject to deep analysis and retrospection. For an idea of the possible ramifications of the inferno, we can look back to the most comparable past incident: the explosion at Ronan Point nearly fifty years ago.
Newsreel shot of Ronan Point
In the decades following the Second World War, tower blocks popped up across British cities to rehouse those displaced by both the destruction of the Blitz and earlier slum clearances. One such block was Ronan Point, a 22-story building raised between 1966 and 1968 in Newham, an East London suburb. The tower’s builders used what was known as the Larsen-Nielsen system of concrete construction; the walls and floors were composed of prefabricated concrete panels which were assembled on-site. There was no structural frame for these panels- all were load-bearing- and the concrete was joined by grout alone, without any joint-reinforcing rebar. The designers put full faith into the material strength of the concrete.
New tower blocks in 1960s Newham
Just months after residents moved into Ronan Point, on May 16, 1968, a gas leak in a corner flat on one of the highest floors was the cause of an explosion. Though the blast was small enough to leave the flat’s occupier relatively uninjured, it blew out the exterior walls. The floor and wall panels directly above, now unsupported, collapsed, taking out those below. Within seconds, the entire corner of the tower had sheared off, and four residents had been killed.
The explosion was on the eighteenth floor, fifth from the top
The tragedy’s cause was twofold: inadequate design and shoddy construction were both at fault. The former was determined quickly by an investigation, which found that the connections between the panels were so weak that a mere 2.8 pounds per square inch of force, a third of that of the explosion, was enough to blow out the walls. Had the blast not occurred, the failure would likely have happened sooner or later due to high winds. Building codes were swiftly changed in response to this revelation. Grenfell Tower, completed six years after Ronan Point, had a full concrete structural frame for this very reason, without which it may very well have collapsed in the fire.
Grenfell Tower under construction- frames for concrete pours can be seen
The poor standard of construction was not revealed until nearly two decades later. Ronan Point had been repaired, fitted with metal braces at the joints, but was still not structurally sound, with large cracks appearing in the walls. In 1986 it was slated for demolition. As it was taken apart, workers found that in many places where there should have been ground and mortar there was instead garbage, newspaper, and voids. Professionals and public alike condemned the lack of quality control and building inspection, a trend that appears to be repeating itself today.
Closeup of the collapsed floors of Ronan Point
Both the initial explosion and the later demolition struck hammer blows to the UK’s tower block projects. People lost faith in their safety and avoided them in favor of low-rise developments. Tenant organizations came to the fore, demanding safety checks and in some cases demolitions. Councils across the nation, including Newham’s, acquiesced to such demands, with many of Ronan Point’s neighbors getting the chop. But as the events in East London faded from memory, councils became less receptive to such demands- such as the Grenfell Tower tenants’ for a review of fire safety.
The 2005 demolition of Glasgow’s Red Roads towers drew major publicity
The Ronan Point saga shocked Britain and changed the construction industry; now, the Grenfell disaster eclipsed it in every way. Deaths are likely to be in triple figures. The smouldering remains will have to be painstakingly demolished. The coming investigation will have behind it a force of immense public anger. For many years now, the concept of tower blocks as social housing has been dying; there is overwhelming evidence as to their inherent risks, their negative effects on communities, their creation rather than solution of social problems. Building codes will certainly change in Grenfell’s aftermath (likely modifications include stricter laws on cladding or the provision of a special fire staircase, as is the case in Germany), there may be increased funding for quality control, but the damage to the public image of tower blocks is irreversible. In fact, it will likely only get worse; it was today announced that emergency safety tests- done only on a small sample of high rises- have found upwards of eleven other tower blocks at risk of a similar fire. Skyscrapers can be safe– almost all are- but this terrifying unveiling of the problems underlying Britain’s tower blocks could truly spell their end.
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