Fire-safety expert Arnold Tarling is a man who has found sudden and unlooked-for fame after a deeply-moving and equally worrying TV interview in which he broke down as he spoke of warning three years ago of the threat posed by the type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower and of bursting into tears at four in the morning last week when he saw the news of the terrible fire:
Tarling is clearly a man completely committed to keeping people safe – and something of an action man, who has been known to abseil down the sides of buildings to carry out safety checks, although all he says on the matter is, “I’m not your typical surveyor”.
Mr Tarling very kindly spoke at some length to the SKWAWKBOX about his fears for the safety of residents, the warnings he gave – and the vast, barely-scratched fire threat facing hundreds of thousands – and even millions – of people in this country:
On ‘illegal’ Grenfell Tower cladding
SKWAWKBOX: Arnold, thanks so much for making time to talk. Chancellor Philip Hammond was on TV on Sunday morning and he stated that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was already illegal. Was he correct?
AT: It’s bollocks, frankly. I don’t blame him for being wrong as he’ll be going on information given to him by aides, but it’s simply not true.
The regulations are incredibly convoluted and unclear, but essentially the type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower was perfectly legal, under current legislation, because the exterior of the cladding panels was non-flammable. Under Appendix A of the Building Regulations 2010 fire safety document, only the outward-facing surface needs to be fire-resistant.
Those advising Hammond will be relying on calling the cladding panels ‘insulation’, which has different rules – but even in that section, it says ‘See Appendix A’ and takes you back to the same rule.
The law is complicated and badly constructed, but under it those panels were legal to use even though they’re known to be dangerous.
The material in those ‘sandwich’ panels was polyethylene, which is classified under the regulations as a ‘thermoplastic’, because it softens at below 200°C – in fact, it’s liquid at 120°C, barely above the temperature of boiling water. You couldn’t make a kettle out of it because it would collapse, but you can legally use it as a building material under current legislation.
On warning the government
S: And you warned of the risks of using this type of material as long ago as 2014?
AT: Yes. Government ministers are hard to reach, because they tend to be ‘walled off’ from the rest of us, but I was invited ‘behind the wall’ to speak – and a senior civil servant from the DCLG (Dept of Communities and Local Govt) was there. He listened as I described the huge dangers of using these materials and he didn’t dispute anything he heard.
The government had the information available, but made no changes.
Mr Tarling did not name the civil servant, but the SKWAWKBOX has ascertained from publicly-available records that it was Brian Martin. According to the Institution of Fire Engineers, Mr Martin:
joined the Civil Service in 2008 as the lead policy advisor on the fire safety aspects of the building regulations at DCLG. He is an active member of several British Standard Committees including FSH 14 on Fire Precautions in Buildings and he also represents DCLG on the Strategic Policy Group for Fire Standardization, FSH 0
The government knew, or had no excuse for ignorance. The information was ‘behind the wall’ but not acted on.
Back to the interview with Mr Tarling:
On why inspections can be meaningless
S: There has been widespread comment from firefighters and other observers about the way that the fire spread so rapidly, not just up the outside of the building but across each floor. But the official advice to residents was to stay inside their flat, because the fire shouldn’t have been able to spread outside the flat in which is started.
AT: There are at least two crucial weaknesses in the idea of people staying inside. The first is that inspections only look at areas in communal use. So the exterior walls and cladding wouldn’t be have to be looked at and neither would individual flats.
S: Hold on – excuse me for interrupting – but you’re saying that a building could pass its fire inspection without the outside walls even being looked at?
AT: That’s right – or the individual apartments. And that’s the other key weakness.
When I do an inspection, I ask to see the inside of the flats as well and what I find there is often terrifying from a fire safety point of view. In one building I inspected near Deptford bridge, I asked the resident if it was ok to look behind his electrical sockets. I took the front panel off and there was nothing inside – they’re supposed to have a protective layer and I shouldn’t even be able to see the plastic at the back of it, but there was nothing.
Worse still, when I took it off, there was nothing between the two sets of plasterboard that formed the party wall. I could look right along between the panels and see the backs of all the neighbour’s sockets as well – with nothing to prevent fire spreading along the gap.
The other thing that makes the ‘stay put’ procedure nonsense is that residents alter things. A hole cut in the ceiling to fit a downlight, for example – that breaches the boundary that’s meant to contain a fire within a flat. Or you’ll find holes cut into the wall between the room and the main corridor to fit a flat-screen TV.
People don’t realise what that’s going to do to the containment – and a minimal inspection won’t pick it up. When I’ve found things like that, the landlord’s solution is often to move out the residents and put new ones in who don’t know about it, rather than to put things right.
S: That’s terrifying
AT: Yes. And that’s only half the story. The other half is the materials used.
On materials and fire-safety testing
You’ve seen my video that shows how quickly polyethylene burns. But even supposedly fire-resistant materials often aren’t – they can pass the tests but the tests can be meaningless.
Expanding foam, for example. There are some types that claim 4-hour fire-resistance, but they’ve never been tested around a pipe or an electric cable. They might have been tested around a telephone cable, but that’s it.
Fire-resistant safety glass is another example. Coated versions will work as long as they’re undamaged, but if you scratch them the integrity of the coating is gone and so is the protection, but they test perfect material. If you want real protection, you need the laminated construction that has a protective layer in the middle of the sandwich .
In 2000, the government tested timbers for use in TFBs (timber-framed buildings). They conducted the test and had firefighters on hand to put out the fire after the test. But even though it was extinguished by professionals it smouldered in the gap – and that night it burned down a three-storey test construction.
It still passed.
AT: Yes. They made excuses, said the firefighters hadn’t extinguished it properly, but I wouldn’t live in a building constructed like that.
S: It sounds like this problem is huge, endemic – far bigger than anything that’s even been hinted at so far. There must be unbelievable numbers of people living in what could turn into death-traps.
S: So is there anything safe?
AT: Oh yes. It’s out there, but there are plenty of people who will approve things based on the minimum legal requirement, tick the boxes – unless you change the law.
S: So why hasn’t the government done it – is it just cost?
AT: It beats the hell out of me, but if they don’t we’re going to see more people die like they did in Grenfell Tower. There are so many at risk that it’s inevitable.
S: Arnold, that’s been instructive, eye-opening – and terrifying. Thanks so much for your time and your expertise.
Newspapers have revealed that 30,000 buildings in the UK are covered in the same kind of cladding as Grenfell Tower:
Huge numbers of people in this country are potentially at risk just from the cladding issue – but add in the dangers from legal-but-inadequate inspections, unclear and contradictory building regulations, shoddy testing and materials that do not perform as they’re claimed to – and, without exaggeration, millions are at risk.
And the government prefers to stick its head in the sand and is even drip-feeding details of the deaths at Grenfell Tower to dilute public outrage.
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