The lightweight metal architectural cladding that is believed to have played a significant part in a deadly June 2017 fire in a London apartment tower is still being used on thousands of buildings around the world, but what can be done about it?
On June 14, 2017, a fire in fourth-floor apartment of London’s 24-story Grenfell Tower quickly spread upward. While the investigation is ongoing, it’s believed that the cladding — Reynobond PE, which sandwiches a polyethylene core between two sheets of aluminum — created a chimney effect that drew smoke, heat, and flames up the tower’s exterior, setting fire to additional apartments along the way.
While the building’s lack of fire exits, smoke alarms, and sprinklers contributed to the disaster, the aluminum sheets on the outside of the Reynobond PE were not sufficient to keep the flames away from the polyethylene core. Once that petroleum-based plastic catches fire, it burns very, very hot.
Arconic (formerly Alcoa) stopped selling these panels shortly after the fire, instead offering a fire-resistant version for high-rise buildings where it could spread fires and make rescue difficult.
“Especially when it comes to facades and roofs, the fire can spread very rapidly,” marketing materials for the panels read. “As soon as the building is higher than the firefighters’ ladders, it has to be conceived with an incombustible material.”
Yet the original version still adorns thousands of buildings around the world, notes the Wall Street Journal. In 2009, building codes written by the nonprofit International Code Council loosened restrictions on polyethylene panels, allowing the combustible versions to be used on buildings. The structures needed interior sprinklers and to be far from other buildings, and the tiles couldn’t cover more than 50% of the exterior, but some members of the committee have misgivings about their decision now.
There’s no registry of buildings that incorporate the panels, but they’ve become a common building material in the last decade. The Wall Street Journal studied manufacturers’ marketing materials and found examples of the panels on a high school in Alaska, a university building in California, and a 32-story Marriott hotel in Baltimore.
Skyscrapers in Dubai also include the material, including a New Year’s Eve fire in 2015 that destroyed part of a hotel during celebratory fireworks. One high rise in that city, the Torch tower (which may need renaming) uses clad panels and caught fire twice in three years.