There have been various reports that the external cladding of Grenfell Tower was at the behest of European Union regulations. The Daily Express suggests the 2010 Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. The blogger Richard North says that report is mistaken to focus on Article 24 of that directive. But he adds of the 2010 Building Regulations that “Part 6 is the relevant code and would have applied to Grenfell House. Thus, the requirement to insulate the building most definitely has an EU dimension.”
North adds that the Construction Products Directive, and revised by Regulation (EU) 305/2011 is deficient. He says:
“Basically, the flammability requirement applies to surface propagation of flame, a test that the aluminium skin can easily pass. That, then, would look to be the cause of the problem – a gravely deficient standard which did not allow for flames from inside a flat venting up the cavity between the cladding and the structure and setting fire to the combustible core, with the tragic effects we have seen.”
The layers of complexity, contradiction, and duplication seem bewildering.
There is another aspect to be considered though. Trying to improve the energy efficiency of these homes is not an ignoble objective – regardless of whether it was required by the EU or not. Alice Bell writes in The Guardian that “insulation, done properly, saves lives.”
“The health impacts of cold homes aren’t always obvious. But year after year, the death toll creeps up. The Association for the Conservation of Energy has claimed that between 2010 and 2015, 46,700 people in the UK died due to living in a cold home.
“We know living in cold homes can worsen chronic lung disease, asthma, arthritis and rheumatism. It also reduces our ability to fight off infection. It’s sometimes characterised as a problem for the over-65s, but as a 2011 Institute of Health Equity report stressed, children living in cold homes are more than twice as likely to suffer from respiratory problems, and there are clear negative effects of cold housing and fuel poverty on the mental health of adolescents. The government’s Fuel Poverty Action Group estimates that cold homes cost the NHS around £1.3bn every year.”
So, of course, Kensington and Chelsea, along with the many other councils around the country that have used, will have had good motives. They will have regarded finding substantial funding for improving energy efficiency as an achievement. There will now technical arguments about how these improvements could have been achieved without the increased risk – installing sprinklers, using better cladding, and so on.
But consideration should also be given to the alternative of demolition of the tower blocks and the replacement with attractive, traditional low rise housing.
As Create Streets has said:
“Terraced housing can also be very environmentally efficient due to excellent modern insulation and more effective heating systems. Above all, only 50% of walls are externally facing and they don’t face the high winds of high-rise housing. Shorter distances between houses also encourage near neighbours to walk to see each other rather than drive. If the current generation of high-rise developments were to prove even half as unsuccessful as their predecessors the environmental argument for creating streets will be even stronger. The least environmentally friendly thing to do to a building is to keep knocking it down and building it again from scratch. All the evidence suggests that streets are less likely to need levelling and re-building after only 40 years.”
At what point are we going to accept that tower blocks can not be fixed? They are a failure. Overwhelmingly people do not want to live in them. The victims are the poor. As Clare Foges put it in The Times(£) the “Lovers of brutalist architecture” tend to state their case “from the comfort of their Georgian terrace”. She adds:
“Yet when people have a choice about where they live, they tend overwhelmingly to choose houses on streets. Children in social housing are 16 times more likely to live on or above the fifth floor than children in private housing. When parents can afford to choose where their children live, it is not up a tower block.”
Tower blocks are anti-social housing. They are an ecological disaster and a safety hazard. In seeking to mitigate the first problem it would seem that the second has been exacerbated. Even if both could be fixed, the social disaster inherent in such architecture remains. For all the billions spent on the “Decent Homes” programme, we need to knock down the tower blocks and replace them with truly decent homes.