NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - 53

NFPA.ORG/FACADES

The remains of Grenfell Tower in London following
a 2017 fire. Until more comprehensive data can be
collected on fires involving combustible exterior
cladding worldwide, experts say, regulatory changes
to help prevent such blazes will be difficult to enact.
GETTY IMAGES

Read the 2014 Fire Protection
Research Foundation report
on combustible exterior wall
assemblies.

COMBUSTIBLE EXTERIORS

DATA VOID
Three years after the terror of Grenfell, accurate data on fires involving
combustible exterior wall assemblies is still difficult to obtain. What does
that mean for the global safety community, and for the people who live and
work in thousands of potentially unsafe buildings worldwide?
by birgitte messerschmidt

F

IRES INVOLVING THE FAÇADES of high-rise
buildings have been covered by the global media
for years. In many of these incidents, spectacular fires
have spread up the exteriors of buildings at high speed,
engulfing the structures in a matter of minutes. Most
of these fires produced few if any fatalities, and as a
result much of the world failed to realize the hazard
presented by combustible exterior wall assemblies.
That changed on the night of June 14, 2017, when
a fire at the Grenfell Tower, a residential apartment
building in London, destroyed the structure and
claimed the lives of 72 people. The fire began in a
fourth-floor apartment, traveled outside through a
window, and ignited the combustible panels and insulation that covered the building's exterior walls. The
flames travelled almost all the way around the building
exterior, spreading the fire to the inside of the building
and shortcutting all interior fire compartmentation,
trapping scores of residents. The first phase of the
official investigation confirmed that a majority of the
flame spread was due to the combustible exterior wall
assemblies that were added to the building during a
deep renovation a few years earlier.

Building Facades feature_05.20 FINAL.indd 53

Fires that spread on the outside of buildings,
feeding off combustible exterior wall assemblies,
used to be very rare. Over the last 30 years, however,
the number of these fires has increased dramatically. According to research done at Imperial College
in London, the frequency of façade fires in large
buildings has increased by seven times in the last
three decades. Other researchers have identified 59
fires involving external walls on high-rise buildings
between 1990 and 2018, with 36 of these occurring
since 2010.
A surprising fact is that the only way researchers
know about the increase in these types of fires is from
the media-even after events like Grenfell, there is
still no coordinated global effort to collect data on
these or any other fire incidents. A report published in
2014 by the Fire Protection Research Foundation on
the fire hazards of combustible exterior wall assemblies provided a number of insights into the potential
dangers of these systems, including extensive flame
spread and significant property loss. But even the
warnings offered by such a comprehensive review were
not enough to inspire policy makers into action. u

5/2/20 4:12 PM



NFPA Journal - May/June 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of NFPA Journal - May/June 2020

Contents
NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - Cover1
NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - Cover2
NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - 1
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NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - Contents
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NFPA Journal - May/June 2020 - Cover3
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