Giorgio Koursaris looks at the global nature of the cladding crisis, and explains why wireless can be part of the solution

As the recent high-rise fire in Milan has shown us, the United Kingdom is far from the only country to be affected by flammable cladding. While there are unique factors, such as the profusion of single-staircase residential tower blocks in the UK, the cladding that was applied to them was largely manufactured by international companies, and it would be negligent for any nation to consider itself immune.

Thankfully, nobody was injured in the fire that engulfed the 20-storey Torre del Moro on August 30th, but the Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, was quick to compare the incident to the Grenfell disaster, stating that the external cladding had been a clear catalyst to the spread of the fire, which was unacceptable in a building less than a decade old. Given that Italy did introduce new legislation governing cladding following the 2017 Grenfell Tower incident, although this has yet to be implemented, the parallels are clear.

Of course, every country has its own construction styles and building regulations, so to call this a global crisis would be to over-simplify the situation in many ways, although the latest incident has certainly reinforced the point that the cladding issue, and associated problems with compromised compartmentation, are by no means unique to the UK. It also shows that other nations need to take note of the lessons that can be learnt from both these fires, and take action where necessary, while also reinforcing the importance of effective fire systems for detection, alert and evacuation.

Legal Challenges

Whereas all countries, even those in the EU, are ultimately responsible for their own laws on construction, fire safety and external cladding, the failure to remove flammable cladding could be a breach of international human rights laws, according to the UN. In 2020, Leilana Farha, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, warned the UK that it could be guilty of multiple violations of the human right to adequate housing if all defective cladding was not removed. Despite this, the UK still has thousands of buildings in technical breach of these rules, as well as revised legal regulations introduced after Grenfell, and most other countries have taken little or no action to investigate or resolve their own cladding issues.

As we have seen in Italy, many countries did look at their own laws and guidance in response to Grenfell, but for various reasons these changes have not always been implemented or enforced. Sadly, the upshot of this is that it is probably only a matter of time before we see another serious fire that spreads due to cladding, and the outcome may not be so fortunate as the one in Milan.

It’s not only Europe that is affected either. Most modern cladding is manufactured in China, and the decades-long building boom there means that many local buildings are affected. Other nations with a serious cladding problem include India, Australia and the United States, plus many others across Asia, Africa and South America. The painful truth is that this problem is not going to go away anytime soon. Four years after Grenfell, the UK has hardly scratched the surface of cladding remediation, with only the most high-risk buildings put right, and that is in one of the richest countries on earth.

Technological Solutions

So, if rapid removal of all cladding is neither possible nor practical, even where the resolve exists to make it happen, what are the solutions? The good news is that, while fire technology cannot fix the problem of defective cladding, it can help to safeguard the people who live and work in affected buildings. With the right systems in place, it is possible to offer some reassurance to building users, while also significantly enhancing their chances of escape should a fire incident occur. Enhanced fire systems are also far more cost-effective to implement and operate than Waking Watch alternatives.

As the existing system requirements and technology will differ in every nation, the intention of this article is not to present detailed solutions. Instead, I will offer an overview of what technology is available and what it can offer in terms of both short-term fixed and long-term solutions.

Fire Systems

Let’s start with the basics. If a fire system does not cover the whole building, or if it is no longer fit for purpose, it is the role of building managers and installers to come up with a solution that will offer enhanced safety and protection, while also minimising inconvenience and upheaval. This is where wireless technology really comes into its own; with cabling requirements reduced by up to 90%, it is possible to expand an existing system, or install a new one, with minimal intrusion, which is particularly advantageous when the system is being extended for communal areas into residential units, for example.

Wireless devices, such as those designed and manufactured by Argus, are now the equal of, if not superior to, any wireless competitors in the market, and they offer major logistical advantages, especially where an upgrade is urgently required. Instead of installing new fire systems as part of a wider refurbishment scheme, wireless systems can be fitted at any time, with far less impact on the fabric of the building and less need to ‘make good’ following the installation of cable networks.

Using wireless devices, it’s also possible to design bespoke systems to meet specific needs or mitigate risks that have been identified by a fire risk assessment. For example, if a window opening in an external wall is surrounded by defective cladding, a wireless heat detector could be placed on the frame to provide early warning of any fire incident, thereby giving the occupants early warning and allowing them to safely evacuate.

Ideally, a fire system should support the staged and orderly evacuation of a building, and be combined with a dedicated system to facilitate this, equivalent to BS8639-compliant systems in the UK. Again, wireless devices can facilitate the rapid installation and commissioning of this type of system. Where this is not possible, perhaps due to the urgency and ideally as a short term measure, a fire system covering the entire building could be considered. The latter option is not ideal as it can encourage a disorderly general evacuation, which can lead to overcrowding and even potentially impede access for the emergency services, especially if there is only a single staircase. Still, it is better than nothing as a short-term measure.

Prevention, Evacuation and Extinguishing

Many countries, especially the USA and Australia, have developed and regulated sprinkler systems, smoke control and other systems in high-rise buildings for several decades now. In other countries, such as the UK, these specifications have been adapted to work in taller buildings and meet local rules and regulations as closely as possibly, given that specific guidance does not always exist. If Grenfell has shown the world one thing, it is that every country needs to examine all available technologies and legislate accordingly. This is not some kind of panacea – A sprinkler system on its own, for example, will not guarantee to extinguish a fire – but working together they can significantly enhance the chances of a successful evacuation and reduce the scale of the fire incident.

In the future, if we are to learn the lessons of Grenfell, the ultimate aim has to be the eventual eradication of all defective cladding, combined with the installation of fire systems that are fit for purpose. There is, of course, no one size fits all solution, but I would suggest that a basic requirement for all governments to aim for should be a fire system that covers the entire building, combined with an evacuation management system that can be controlled by the emergency services on site.

The exact nature of these systems will be dictated by local regulations, the design of the budling (ie. Number of stairwells) and the precise usage of the structure, but these basics are a good place to start. Complementary systems, such as smoke control and sprinklers, will also have their place and governments should act to ensure they have standards in place for their specification, installation and long-term maintenance.

International Cooperation

As a final point, I would suggest that governments seek to learn from other countries, emulate what works and identify what doesn’t. In high-rise buildings, for example why start from scratch when the USA and Australia have written the rule book. For cladding, look at what the UK has got right and wrong following Grenfell, and use this knowledge to help eradicate defective cladding and make buildings safe. There is so much expertise out there, so it’s sad that governments always tend to think they know best, although this does not mean that global manufacturers, such as Argus, cannot share knowledge and expertise to help make things better.

Cladding and inadequate fire systems are not problems that are going to be solved overnight, but by looking beyond our home markets, we can signpost an eventual way out of the crisis. It’s not enough to look upon it as a problem faced by the UK alone, as clearly demonstrated by what happened in Italy, and the Grenfell fire could have occurred anywhere in the world. It’s sad that more people will die in high-rise fires before every nation gets to grip with this global issue, but by working together and encouraging international cooperation, we can all do something to make buildings safer for everyone.

Giorgio Koursaris is general manager at Argus Security.

Get in touch