Sunday, 16 July 2017

Grenfell Tower: European regulation permitted the fire

One of the greatest acts of faith by ordinary people in any modern society is that the state protects its citizens from all perils.

What happens to a state when it abjectly fails to protect its citizens?  What happens to the state when the failure is a design flaw of a regulation (mis-)sold as a protective measure?  What happens to the state when the media mis-reports just about every angle of the issue?

The fire at Grenfell Tower, West London (“Grenfell”), is poised to form the basis of a debate in which these questions will be asked with increasing anger and freneticism, alongside more pertinent questions that all levels of government, regulators and inspectorates will seek to divert, pervert and avoid at all costs.

In the UK, three inquiries into Grenfell look likely:

I’ve seen these sorts of things before: each inquiry turns into a publicity stunt, scoped very carefully to ensure that the guilty parties in the top levels of government are protected from their crap policy choices (and subsequent regulation).

As usual, has done its homework.  Also as usual, it seems that the typical journalist can’t be bothered to do a proper job.

Much of this blog entry is my summary of Dr North’s various blog posts so that I can understand the chronology of events and the deductive logic required to form a coherent, if incomplete, conclusion.

A poor choice of building standard

The starting point was Dr North’s blog entry of 05Jul2017, which realises that throughout the EU, the base regulation is the enforcement of European Standard EN13501.  A German firefighter, Reinhard Reis of Frankfurt am Main, had to deal with a similar incident in 2012 and thereafter appealed for data for similar incidents in Germany.  So far, he had received reports of over 100 incidents, reporting 11 deaths and 100 injured hosts a PDF dated 29Jun2017 that lists them.  They date from 2001 to 2017 and include Grenfell.

Predictably, of course, the Grauniad reported Reis saying that German standards are higher than British standards, so Grenfell couldn’t happen there.  So, that proves (again) that the Grauniad is happy to spread “fake news” when doing so meets the Grauniad’s left-wing ideological objectives of spreading hatred of Britain for the sake of hatred.  Elsewhere, a comment from the Grauniad wrongly said:
“In fact, regulations on building materials and fire safety are a matter for national governments. (The chancellor, Philip Hammond, suggested last weekend that the flammable cladding used might be illegal in the UK, as it is in other countries such as the US and Germany.)”

However, if the Grauniad had correctly quoted Reis, then this “fake news” has inadvertently revealed that the Germans might be just as ignorant as the English about European law.  In particular, the bit that the Grauniad chose to ignore was this inconvenient fact: the requirements of building materials to resist fire for a minimum time period have been the same in both Britain and Germany for decades, i.e. European Standard EN13501.

But there is a fault in the method of fire testing.  One has a choice of testing individual components (“a material test”), or that of testing the complete installation (“a system test”).

EN13501 is a material test, not a system test.  Why & when did the EC make EN13501 mandatory?

In 1994, the EC started a process to harmonise fire testing, based on a material test (the Single Burning Item test).  Whether CEN/CENELEC did anything about this, I don’t know.

In 1999, a UK Parliamentary Select Committee was working on a system test, which eventually became BS8414.  Australia adopted BS8414 in 2016.  But Britain could not adopt it, because in 2000, the European Commission published Commission Decision 2000/367/EC (note that this is a “text with EEA relevance”).  This gave the European Union a regulatory toehold in the field of building regulation.  In accordance with TFEU Article 2 paragraph 2, the Commission Decision locked in a material testing regime of EN13501 and locked out Member Nations from replacing EN13501 with more fit-for-purpose standards.  Once locked out, Member Nations need to ask the EU for permission to add or to amend legislation in the same field, but as will become clear in later sections of this blog, the EU had no political will to accept that EN13501 was unfit for purpose.

With an inferior material test locked into law, work began on a more fit-for-purpose system test.  Although a mandate for this had existed since 1994, the real effort started in 2007 and the need for a European-wide system test was finally recognised in 2013.  The phrase “better late than never” doesn’t seem enough to describe it.  As at 2013, we really were waiting for the lazy convenience of disinterested bureaucrats, weren’t we?

But the contradiction - confusion? - between material tests and system tests continued.  The EC offered a tender in August 2016 for a contract to develop a European approach to the fire assessments of facades (cladding).  Meanwhile, impatience in Germany resulted in an attempt to bypass European law (i.e. running two systems in parallel) by drafting a German equivalent of BS8414.  The draft become DIN 4102-2 and is being boycotted by the German unions because they perceive DIN 4102-2 as being too weak.

Dr North noted that China already adheres to BS8414, but that no European Member Nation can do.

A poor strategic choice for public policy

Meanwhile, the European Union pursued its framework strategy of Europe 2020.  One key feature in this framework is the set of targets relating to climate change.  One implementation of these targets was Directive 2010/31/EU which set out orders for each Member Nation to do something about energy performance of buildings.  For most consumers, the energy performance certificate is the most common connection they have with the Directive.  It’s a good example of just how deep the impact of European regulation can be, good or bad.

Consequently, there became a pressing need to reduce carbon emissions and to increase the energy efficiency.  This meant some sort of external insulation - typically covered with cladding - be installed on buildings.  Grenfell Tower was one such building.

The effects of this strategic choice were measured by a team of Croatian fire researchers (Pečur et al) in 2015 and again in 2016.  The researchers found that applying combustible insulation to the outside of buildings did indeed increase the fire risk of a building.  Blindingly obvious, I’d say!  The researchers recommended that if energy performance of building were to be tightened, then so too should be tightened the fire performance of buildings.  In other words, the researchers called for a system test.  The researchers recommended BS8414 for high-rise buildings and DIN 4102-20 for medium-rise buildings.

“Absence of harmonised EU test method for determining fire performance of building façade and therefore presence of a number of national test methods are a barrier to trade for the European Common Market of construction products and may cause unequal level of fire safety for the same type and height of buildings across the EU, since the different national test methods have different test set up and different fire performance criteria. Thereby, fire performance of the façade systems can be fully and equally assessed across the whole EU by taking into account building type (level of fire load) and building height, thus performing harmonised medium or large scale test, i.e. full scale test as Kotthoff suggested (Kotthoff, 2015). Authors of this paper strongly support this approach and consider DIN Entwurf 4102-20 as a suitable basis for the future harmonised EU test method for the medium-rise buildings (height 7 – 22 m) and BS 8414-1:2002 as a suitable basis for the highrise buildings (height > 22 m), i.e. for determining their fire performance.”
Extract: 2016 report, section 4 (conclusion), 1st para.

So far, so good.  But what’s the problem?

The researchers realised that the energy efficient targets of buildings asunder Directive 2010/31/EU required retro-fitting insulation and cladding on existing buildings.  In section 1 of the 2015 report, Pečur et al stated that insulation could be either combustible or non-combustible.  Outside the report, however, it falls into the realms of the obvious that the only reliable way that any insulation material would be viable to meet energy efficiency requirements was to use a man-made, or artificial, insulating material.  And, unfortunately, this insulating material would be combustible.  Natural materials simply wouldn’t conserve sufficient heat to increase energy efficiency by enough to meet the targets.  (Further beyond the scope of the Pečur et al, I would also question the cost-effectiveness of the targets over the long-term: the presumption of refurbishment is that refurbishment is an overall better use of resources than demolition-and-reconstruction, and, for high-rise buildings, there are social costs as well as energy and/or carbon costs to consider.)

So, the net result is that Directive 2010/31/EU had embarked upon an arbitrary target of energy efficiency without first checking whether it was feasible, or second checking whether the arbitrary target would by-pass essential checks for safety, i.e. EN13501.  The EU’s random policy picking machine had failed to join the dots.  The EU had given us exactly the same crappy disjointed incrementalism, arising from same crappy departmental bunker mentality, as us Europeans would normally get from our own crappy national governments (only at considerably more cost).  Worse, the EU had ensured that none of our crappy national governments could put down regulation to make good the shortcomings of the EU’s standards.

The stage was set for disaster.  One EU set of regulations pushed us towards using combustible insulation; another set of EU regulations allowed us to combustible material without regard to how it was being deployed on any particular building.  Demonstrably, the EU had no political will to resolve this conflict at all, let alone to do urgently.

Botched implementation

Of course, no story relating to British public life is complete without gross incompetence.

Immediately in the aftermath of Grenfell, UKGov reacted in the standard pattern of “issue-avoidance”.  In the case of Grenfell, the UKGov ordered tests on the cladding of high-rise towers blocks, even though the cladding was not the issue.  The issue was, and remains, the combustible insulation.  Even if UKGov knowingly commissioned a material test in accordance with EN13501, it seems that UKGov was obsessed with testing the wrong material in the system.  Such is the evasiveness of government, that it has probably already chosen not to test the alleged insulation material (RS5000, see below) on the basis that it wasn’t certified for use.

And because builders may test their buildings in accordance with BS8414 (as an additional form of compliance, not a replacement, to EN13501), it should strike the reasonable observer that UKGov doesn’t understand its own legislation.  For the avoidance of doubt, the building may test asunder BS8414, but the Member Nation must not make BS8414 mandatory without express permission from the EU.


And it’s not as if UKGov is entitled to have remained ignorant.  In 2000, Peter Field from the Building Research Establishment told a Commons Select Committee investigating a fire at Irvine that EN13501 was seriously inadequate because it required only a single burn test on each building component separately, and not together as a constructed system (again, the difference between a material test and a system test).

But what would UKGov have needed to do to strengthen EU regulation quickly, to bring it into the realms of being fit-for-purpose?

Well, in the early 2000s, it would have meant sending John Prescott to Brussels to bang the drum.  Dr North claims that the records show a focus by Prescott and his officials on implementing improved insulation for buildings, unaccompanied by a parallel focus on the fire safety of the insulation being used.  I can’t help but think cynically that had Prescott gone to Brussels, then Brussels would have been whingeing about the British finding some other objection to this-that-and-the-other, i.e. “the British always seem to miss the point of everything, don’t they?”, the point in this case being the crusade against global warming.

I’m not sure that UKGov and EU would have deliberately chosen to prioritise the crusade against global warming over basic fire safety, but the evidence is that they did so, even if only negligently.

A criminal enterprise?

And so we turn to the question as to whether compliance with botched regulation is an adequate defence against the charge of corporate manslaughter.

Included within the scope of all such inquiries intending to be relevant to Grenfell’s story must be the vendors and the buyers.  The London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (“LBK&C”) contracted with Rydon to refurbish the Grenfell Tower in April 2014.  Dr North appears to have traced this to the insulation material used, which was apparently Saint Gobain’s Celotax RS5000.  The sales schpiel says that it “is the first PIR insulation board to successfully test to BS 8414-2:2005, meet the criteria set out in BR 135 and therefore is acceptable for use in buildings above 18 metres in height.”

But BS8414 is a system test, not a material test.  So when and where was this insulation tested?

RS5000 appears to have been a new product, launched in August 2014.

So, Dr North deduces that LBK&C must have been amongst the first - if not the first - to have used RS5000.  I agree with Dr North’s reasoning in this respect.  It is highly unlikely that RS5000 could ever have been subject to a system test, let alone BS8414.  So therefore, the sales schpiel offered a fundamental misrepresentation before contract (fundamental misrepresentation before invitation-to-treat!!).  How can this sales schpiel be an innocent error?

I was unable to find a Certificate of Agrément for RS5000 as at 15Jul2017, so it’s questionable whether RS5000 has been successfully tested asunder a material test of EN13501.  Moreover, as Dr North deduces, the product only seems to survive a test when cladded.  But this raises even more questions about how Saint Gobain could have possibly tested RS5000.  On the face of it, the use of RS5000 was untested and therefore non-compliant under EN13501.  At this time, I think we can only speculate whether RS5000 within facade/cladding might have passed tests under BS8414.

In turn, it also questions what questions LBK&C asked of Rydon to be confident that the refurbishment would result in a safe building, and how complete, accurate and valid were Rydon’s replies to LBK&C.  Yes, LBK&C is entitled to believe representations of Rydon, but given the nature of the project, then LBK&C would have needed a lot of assurance - including supporting evidence from independent sources - that the end result would be safe.  LBK&C would have needed to know the precise deployment plan, with certified evidence of compliance (and compliance to which standard, precisely), and correct answers to questions mainly beginning with the word “how”.

Objectively, common sense says that you don’t change building systems willy-nilly.  Grenfell Tower had only one set of stairs, with no alternative escape routes - something that apparently puzzles nearly everybody worldwide, given the building’s construction date of 1974  - so the fire safety instructions to residents was to stay in their apartments.  I don’t know what the Fire Plan for Grenfell was, but the Torygraph reports that the Fire Plan might have been challenged by residents.  Nor do I know what fire safety mechanisms had been planned within the structure of the building, i.e. how the layout/configuration of the bulkheads, corridors, floors, ceilings, windows were designed to impede the spread of fire.

But the most obvious thing to challenge is whether a layer of combustible insulation mounted on the outside of the building would give fire a really effective means of by-passing any fire impediment mechanisms designed within the infrastructure of the building.  In any police investigation, identifying the person(s) who failed to ask that question should be a top priority.

The cover-up

For all of the private corporations and individuals implied in Grenfell, there are also public sector corporations implicated, too.

One of those public sector corporations is the European Commission, whose standard EN13501 is ultimately the false assurance that misdirected everybody into testing materials instead of systems, and let this false assurance remain as a mandatory standard for years, alongside the better standard BS8414.

Another one of those public sector bodies is UKGov, who signed up to TFEU in the full knowledge that when the EU regulates in a field, then no Member Nation can do so without express permission from the EU.  But of course, given the EU’s poor choice to prioritise the crusade against global warming over and above basic fire safety, it was reasonably foreseeable that the EU would have dismissed any request from any Member Nation to replace the material test standard EN13501 with the system test standards BS8414 for high-rise buildings and DIN 4102-2 for medium-rise buildings.  In all likelihood, the EU would have dismissed such requests on the grounds that such a change would have impeded harmonisation of the existing standard EN13501 and thus erected barriers in the Single Market between Member Nations.  Then again, had the EU been more competent with its choice of public policy at the outset, BS8414 and DIN 4102-2 could have been the content of EN13501 many years earlier on, and a far greater degree of harmonisation could have been achieved much earlier than today…  So, on this occasion, the UKGov can legitimately blame the EU for procrastination, inactivity and sabotage.

In all of the UK inquiries set to happen for Grenfell, the scope of each one is going to be crucial to determine which culpable elements of the public sector are going to get away scot-free for the gross negligence that they injected into Grenfell.

The political pressure that the EU is going to exert on UKGov - amidst Brexit! - to ensure that the EU’s “right to be forgotten” is going to be very high.  We already know that the EU considers itself untouchable: the failure of the EU crappy policy choices at Grenfell will augment the EU’s sense of superior detachment from the consequences of its crappy policy choices.

Of course, UKGov hasn’t got a clue about much nowdays - fire regulation, Brexit, own statute book: these are all mysteries to UK Parliament, UK politicians, UK civil servants, UKGov and UK media - so the EU is probably going to get away with it.  Post-Brexit, we’ll have to leave the Germans to dig themselves out of their own fog of ignorance, to find out how German citizens might have been killed and betrayed by EU standards.  UKGov is going to be more concerned about evading its own culpability in Grenfell anyway.

Meanwhile, media outlets continue to report bollocks, thus granting the EU its “right to be forgotten” without the EU ever needing to ask for such right.  The ignorance and issue-illiteracy of traditional media outlets is well-established, but, worryingly, the new media is also reporting errors and falsehoods.  BuzzFeed fell into the trap of pure ignorance perfectly: in a map to link bodies related to Grenfell, it wrongly omits British Standards Institute, the European equivalent (CEN and CENELEC), the European Commission who mandated EN13501, the European Organisation for Technical Approvals (EOTA) the Standing Committee on Construction (SCC, link from third party), and others identified by Dr North.  All essential to understand the issue, and yes, the issue really is this complex!  Accountability is easier to evade if it is split in loads of different ways, all smoke-and-mirrors.  So presumably, the “new media” are recruiting the same low grade of lazy journalists that the legacy media continue to employ.  Fake news continues to spread like hot butter!

Meanwhile, while the UKGov engages in damage diversion, the opposition Labour Party has decided a publicity campaign of “Public sector austerity murdered Grenfell’s residents.”  This is wilfully wrong, and such a deliberate attempt to mislead, that it is beyond morally offensive.  But there are plenty of deeply stupid people out there who will want to believe it.

All of which is set to add Grenfell to a long and growing list of UK taxpayers of reasons to go to civil war…

Credibility of the witness

Dr North reports in his blog that he was a district environmental health officer who studied building construction methods and has previously co-enforced building regulations, even including fire safety standards in multi-occupancy buildings.  He claims not to be an expert, but his blog demonstrates repeatedly that he can read standards, follow the details (unlike the mass media) and return coherent, qualified opinions on technical matters.

Unlike legacy media outlets, Dr North provides evidence to support his assertions.  I have reviewed links to the key elements of his views and have found them to be in order, used in the correct context and extracting the appropriate conclusions.

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