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Cladding: The facts behind the ongoing crisis

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In the early hours on Wednesday 14th June 2017, South Londoners awoke to a smell of smoke in their noses. 

Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey residential block in North Kensington, had caught on fire, and the devastating event later led to 72 people losing their lives.

The tower, completed in 1974 as part of the first phase of the Lancaster West Estate, and renovated in 2016, had been home to hundreds of people.

While a faulty refrigerator caused the fire to start, the blame soon shifted to the use of exterior cladding, insulation and cavity barriers which had helped to facilitate its spread.

Criticism soon mounted about fire safety regulation practices in the UK, as members of the public condemned the emergency response to the crisis and the later response of public bodies, politicians, and wider society. 

However, before this social housing scandal was sparked, there had been fires caused by cladding in the UK, China, France, Dubai and Australia, with the material being banned by the USA and some European countries.

Four years later, as Grenfell remains standing as a visible scar of the crisis, millions remain trapped in unsafe, unsellable flats facing crippling remediation fees.

The question of responsibility has often been raised: is it the constructor’s fault for using this type of cladding, or the government for not regulating the use of this type of cladding?

Below, The London Centrist takes you through the key facts about cladding.

What is cladding and why is it used?

Cladding refers to the application of an extra layer of material over another in the construction of a building.

The cladding can be made up of a wide range of raw and composite materials, the most used of which are: stone, brick, UPVC, timber, metal, concrete, weatherboard or glass.

Cladding is used both to improve the durability of a building by making it more weather resistant and to further insulate the building and make it more energy-efficient.

However, cladding is also widely used to improve the external aesthetics of a building, for example helping to soften the brutalist appearance of concrete tower blocks.

What types of cladding present a problem?

The problem with all cladding is that it creates a cavity between the building’s wall and this additional material which was initially invented so that rain can run down.

However, in the event of a fire, this air cavity intensifies the fire, drawing hot air upwards alongside the building and allowing it to get inside.

Additionally, the cladding material itself can also catch on fire depending on which type it is.

Whilst brick, wood, cement, steel, aluminium and other commonly used raw materials are all fire-resistant, cladding is also often made up of a composite structure of a core material sandwiched between two aluminium panels.

This core material is often made up of polyethylene, polyurethane, a profiled metal or a mineral-based material, all of which have varying degrees of combustibility.

During a fire, the external panels can delaminate exposing the combustible core material which catches on fire and spreads the fire throughout the building.

The two most high-risk types of cladding, for this reason, are Aluminium Composite Material (ACM), and unsafe non-ACM.

What type of building does cladding exist on?

Cladding using composite ACM and non-ACM structures has been used for over 60 years in multi-storey and multi-occupied buildings to improve both their aestheticism and their efficiency.

Large multi-storey tower blocks have been commonly modified in that way to fit into the neighbourhood and increase architectural value, for example Notting Hill’s Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2016.

This type of cladding is cheaper than non-composite material alternatives, and often the most high-risk buildings are those that have the least funds to remediate this.

For example, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) who managed on the council’s behalf saved £293,000 in their choice of ACM for Grenfell Tower, with a fireproof version costing only £5,000 more.

As a result, government remediation is directed towards the two most high-risk composite cladding structures: ACM and non-ACMs, used in private and social residential buildings but limited to buildings above 18 metres.

Many more buildings below 18 metres have unsafe cladding, and owners and residents are having to create funds to tackle this themselves.

What is the government doing to battle this?  

Governmental funds of £600 million were made available to remove and replace ACM cladding, and it was announced in the 2020 Budget that £1 billion would be provided to fund the remediation of non-ACM cladding systems.

This Building Safety Fund is available in grant funding to rectify the risk of non-ACM cladding on buildings in both the social and private residential sectors limited to buildings above 18 metres.

There are around 88,000 buildings between 11 and 18 metres in the UK which may need remediation work but do not qualify for this fund.

In Rishi Sunak’s 2021 budget a further £5bn investment in building safety was announced for buildings over 6 storeys, or 18 metres tall.

However, the government made clear that building owners remain legally responsible for ensuring the safety of their buildings and residents, and that those who have already committed to pay for the removal and replacement of this type of cladding, or are currently doing so, must honour this.

This ensures that priority funding is given to those who cannot afford this level of construction rectification and therefore the safety of residents living in buildings with hazardous cladding may not be hindered or jeopardised.

The fund does not exonerate the industry for their construction failures that introduced this problem of unsafe ACM and non-ACM cladding.

The government is working with industry to reduce the need for ESW1 forms, preventing leaseholders from facing delays and allowing thousands of homes to be sold, bought or re-mortgaged.

A new tax has been introduced for the UK residential property development sector to raise at least £2bn over a decade to help pay cladding removal costs.

This tax is due to ensure that the largest property developers pay a fair contribution towards cladding remediation costs, from which they will reap benefits when confidence is restored to the UK housing market.

Legislation to protect future generations from similar crises has been moved forward in the government, yet action has so far not crossed the line between reactive and preventative.

When will this crisis end?

Whilst ongoing for over three decades, it is thought high-rise buildings will not be safe for at least another 20 years.

Along with the predicted 88,000 buildings between 11-18 metres that may have unsafe cladding, the government identified 462 dangerous high-rise buildings over 18 metres in England alone.

Over 200 of these have had their cladding removed, and removal works are ongoing at other buildings.

According to Home Office analysis, buildings between 18 and 30 metres in height are four times more likely to suffer a fire with fatalities or serious casualties than apartment buildings in general.

This analysis highlights the risk still facing thousands of UK residents in their homes and the fear of more future fires.

Whilst the relaxation of measures has meant people who have for four years been prevented from selling or re-mortgaging their home can move on with their lives, thousands still remain trapped in unsafe homes.

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  1. sam_finlator February 3, 2022

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