London fire: ‘Chimney effect could be reason Grenfell Tower blaze spread so quickly’, expert says

A “chimney effect” could be the reason the deadly Grenfell Tower blaze spread so quickly, a top fire and explosion expert has said. 

At least 12 people have been killed after the huge blaze turned the 24-storey west London tower block into an inferno in the early hours of this morning. 

The blaze is thought to have started on the third or fourth floor of the block soon after midnight with hundreds of people inside. It spread to every storey of the building with firefighters unable to reach beyond the 19th and 20th floors.

Dr Claire M Benson, a Research Fellow at London South Bank University, told the Standard the speed at which the fire took hold could have been caused by air flow and a chimney type effect that funnelled the flames upwards.

Aerial footage shows the full scale of the fire

She said: “There are two main factors. It could be down to the material that is used. It could be down to air flow causing a chimney effect that can really drive a fire very quickly. 

“The investigation is going to be key to establishing how the fire spread and where it spread.”

Dr Benson added that tall buildings should be designed using “compartmentation” throughout to prevent fire or smoke spreading from one section of a floor to another.

She said: “The idea is that you evacuate the compartment affected by fire and those around it but everybody beyond that should be safe. The correct materials should be in place. This should also allow the fire service time to tackle the fire.”

Notting Hill Grenfell Tower Fire – In pictures

Speaking to reporters about the Grenfell Tower blaze, Fire Brigade Union safety expert David Sibert said: “The principle that tower blocks are built on is that every flat is a fire-resisting box, every flat is completely surrounded by fire-resisting construction from the rest of the building.

“So you should be able to set fire to your own flat and leave it to completely burn out and it won’t affect anybody else in the building.”

Dr Benson said the materials used in the design of the building could also have had an impact on how quickly the fire spread.

According to some experts, adding cladding to tower blocks could create an additional fire risk.

The process of applying the rain-proof frontage can create a 25mm-30mm cavity between the cladding and the insulation behind it, Arnold Tarling, chartered surveyor and fire expert with property firm Hindwoods, said.

He said this can have the effect of creating a “wind tunnel and also traps any burning material between the rain cladding and the building”.

Dr Benson also believes sprinklers could have helped prevent the fire from taking hold so fast.


The burning 24 storey residential Grenfell Tower block (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

She added: “For me and most fire safety professionals, we would like to see sprinklers and automatic fire suppression installed in these buildings. New buildings above 30 metres have them. 

“The fire safety industry would like to see more of this. Ideally I guess you would want it installed in your escape locations. A lot of people say they don’t want them installed because of damage but it’s not like in the Hollywood movies, sprinklers don’t set off by accident.” 

The Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 and contains 120 homes. It was refurbished recently at a cost of £8.6 million, with work completed in May last year.

The exterior of the tower was modernised with cladding and replacement windows, while additional homes were added using vacant space in the building.

On its website, Rydon Construction said: “Externally, rain screen cladding, curtain wall facade and replacement windows were fitted, improving thermal insulation and modernising the exterior of the building.”


A huge blaze ripped through the tower block (Jeremy Selwyn)

The work also included the installation of new double-glazed windows and a new communal heating system.

Based in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it is around half a mile from the Westfield shopping centre and close to many London Underground stations.

It is run by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation on behalf of the council.

Rydon said in a statement today: “We were shocked to awake this morning to the scenes of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower and our immediate thoughts were with those that have been affected by the incident, their families, relatives and friends.

“Rydon completed a refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016, meeting all required health and safety standards.

“We will cooperate fully with the relevant authorities and emergency services and await the outcome of their enquiries.” 

Robert Black, Chief Executive of Kensington & Chelsea TMO, says: “The fire at Grenfell Tower is devastating and the reports of injury and losses of life absolutely heartbreaking. Along with my colleagues, I have been supporting residents since the early hours, working with the emergency services and the community. Respite centres are at Latymer Community Centre, St Clement’s Church, Harrow Club and Rugby Portobello Trust. The Casualty Bureau Number is 0800 0961 233. 

“Currently we’re focussing on helping those residents and London Fire Brigade is investigating the safety of the tower’s structure but we will issue a further statement in due course. 

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