Further thoughts on the Grenfell Tower

Over the past 24 hours social media seems to have been inundated with experts on structural engineering and fire protection. I am no expert in either, but I know a bit about the latter – a career in oil and gas will leave you with more knowledge on fires and explosions than most. I probably know more about structural engineering than most people, too.

When I was involved in the construction of a residential unit in Sakhalin, I was told the fire protection was not there to protect the asset, it was to buy enough time for everyone to evacuate. Once everyone is out – well, let it burn, claim the insurance, and build another one. Of course, it was designed not to burn, but if it did the priority was to get everyone out ASAP. Being owned by an oil company, the unit we built had alarms and a full evacuation plan.

I have no idea what the philosophy was in the Grenfell Tower, but it should have been to get everyone out ASAP in the event of a fire: you hear the alarm, everyone evacuates, the firemen turn up to see what’s what. From what I’m hearing, people believed they should stay in their apartments because the flats were designed to contain fires, or something like that. Even if they were designed to contain fires, you should still evacuate. Yes, it’s a pain in the arse standing in the carpark in your pyjamas at 1am, but it’s better than burning to death.

Back when I worked for a Shell-affiliated company, an email went around about two Shell employees who were staying in a hotel in (I think) India. When you work for a major oil company, particularly Shell, safety is dinned into you from day one to the point that it becomes second-nature even outside your workplace. Next time you see Rex Tillerson boarding or disembarking from a plane, notice how he always holds the handrail: he got that from ExxonMobil. Anyway, these two guys were in their hotel rooms when the fire alarm went off. Most people would have just thought “sod it” and stayed in bed, but these boys were good little soldiers and grabbed their passports and left via the fire escape. They got outside and found the whole building was alight, and some people died. Shell saw fit to circulate this in an email, and it made an impression on me. If you hear an alarm, get the hell out of there. Better to look a fool than be dead.

Anyway, my point is that fire protection is usually installed to slow down the spread of a fire, and give people enough time to get out. A lot of people are asking why sprinkler systems weren’t installed in the Grenfell Tower. Contrary to what most people think, sprinkler systems are not supposed to extinguish fires: they are activated by heat and designed to keep surfaces cool, thus preventing the fire from spreading. You know when you see the firemen spraying water at a fire? Most of the time they’re not aiming it at the flames, they’re soaking the areas around it. They don’t have enough water to put the fire out, so the best they can do is try to keep the surrounding surfaces cool enough so it won’t spread. Eventually the fire will spread, if it’s hot enough and there is enough fuel, but it will take more time and hopefully everyone will be out by then. All the firemen do from then is to try to stop the building collapsing and the fire spreading to other properties.

I doubt there are many residential buildings in the world which have the sort of evacuation procedures you see in offices and hotels. Perhaps this will change, or at the very least people will be advised to evacuate rather than stay in their apartments. There is not much point installing sprinkler systems which buy people time to evacuate if everyone is staying put.

I confess I was surprised that the cladding was flammable. This is a rather colossal failure of the building regulations, and raises the question how much of this stuff has been installed already. Quite a bit, would be my guess. It is possible to get cladding which has insulating properties and is also fireproof, and we use it extensively on oil and gas facilities. It is usually a form of mineral wool, but it is probably too expensive for large-scale residential use. You also need to keep the stuff dry: it isn’t much good when sopping wet, meaning the external cladding needs to be watertight, i.e. properly designed and installed.

I have heard reports that £9m was spent refurbishing the Grenfell Tower recently. What isn’t clear is how much of that went on purchasing certified materials and paying qualified, experienced tradesmen and how much went on kickbacks, admin fees, consultancy, fees, and audits to ensure the companies involved had diverse management teams and recycled their office waste properly. As I learned in Russia, spending $50m on a building doesn’t always give you $50m worth of building.

Finally, Twitter user Old Holborn has discovered that the monthly rent in the Grenfell Tower was £1,625 per month. It might be slightly less now, but this is London so perhaps not. I’m wondering why this tower, sitting in one of the most expensive boroughs in the country and consisting mainly of social housing, was occupied almost exclusively by immigrants from the poorest parts of the world. Actually, I know the answer to that.

This whole incident raises so many questions it’s hard to know where to begin.

And this:

On Thursday, the first victim of the fire was named as Syrian refugee Mohammed Alhajali, 23.

In a statement, the Syria Solidarity Campaign said Mr Alhajali, a civil engineering student, had been in a flat on the 14th floor when the fire broke out, and had spent two hours on the phone to a friend in Syria.

He had been trying to get through to his family while he was waiting to be rescued.

“Mohammed came to this country for safety and the UK failed to protect him,” the group said.

Speaks volumes.

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42 thoughts on “Further thoughts on the Grenfell Tower

  1. I suspect that with only one staircase it may not be safe to evacuate these types of council buildings.

  2. I suspect that with only one staircase it may not be safe to evacuate these types of council buildings.

    Probably not, given who is living in them and the lack of drills/training.

  3. The comment over at Tim Worstall’s about the flammability of the gas used in the new ‘eco fridges’ is pretty chilling.

    Gaia must live, even if you die!

  4. This is why I love the internet. Those pricks in the mainstream media are guessing, but you can read stuff from all over by people with some experience in the field. Thanks.

  5. BiW,

    Yeah, the sprinkler one isn’t common knowledge at all. When we put a deluge/sprinkler system on a vessel on an oil and gas installation, it’s there to keep the surface of the vessel cool when exposed to a nearby fire. The fire itself is extinguished by shutting off the fuel supply (i.e. closing valves), isolating it, and sending all hydrocarbons in the isolated section to the flare so there’s nothing left to burn. This should take no more than 15 mins, and the sprinkler system needs to keep things cool for that period. No amount of water will out a hydrocarbon fire out, except for the entire sea itself (i.e. the facility sinks beneath the waves).

  6. The thing I’d be interested to know is what happens to the gas supply in this case. Is there some kind of automatic shutoff if there’s no back pressure?

  7. The thing I’d be interested to know is what happens to the gas supply in this case. Is there some kind of automatic shutoff if there’s no back pressure?

    I’d suspect so, yes. The meters – made by Schlumberger in Manchester AFAIK – are of a pretty robust design, but I’m not sure how domestic gas works. In our installations we shut down as soon as we detect gas, and start sending stuff to the flare.

  8. The rent paid by council/housing association tenants in the block could be expected to be sustantially less than the amount charged by a private landlord (who has purchased the leasehold of a flat) advertising for tenants on the open market. It’s not easy to find out that information, and the differential between free-market and state-subsidised rents varies widely from place to place, even in London – but I suspect in a district like (even a grotty bit of North) Kensington perhaps one-half to two-thirds of that amount might be a realistic estimate.

  9. Piper Alpha burnt while being supplied with 12 miles of 12 inch gas from a nearby platform.
    So we made lots of money installing undersea isolation valves.
    It should be fairly cheap to install such valves on a building-by- building basis on land. I suspect that isn’t done, and only an area wide isloation system is in place.

  10. The rent paid by council/housing association tenants in the block could be expected to be substantially less than the amount charged by a private landlord

    Sure, but illustrates that this is a pretty expensive place for refugees to be living in.

  11. Piper Alpha burnt while being supplied with 12 miles of 12 inch gas from a nearby platform.

    Yup: Piper Alpha, Herald of Free Enterprise, Clapham Junction crash, Kings Cross fire, Marchioness…all brought about sweeping changes as to how things are done. This latest incident might be another.

  12. I’m not sure that this is a timely comment, but I thoroughly enjoyed my training in extinguishing hydrocarbon fires: it’s such good fun that people should offer it as part of weekend “adventure” breaks. All you need are blazing puddles of petrol, suitable fire extinguishers, suitable clothes and boots (people love dressing up for “sport”), and a thorough briefing beforehand.

    It may be indelicate to say so, but the extinguishers might have been a bit heavy for lassies to handle. How does the modern world cope with that?

    Anyway that has nowt to do with this calamity. I can’t help but feel it’s bloody stupid to park people in tower blocks if there’s any choice in the matter. Anyone who said that in the 60s and 70s was told he was a reactionary by the marxisant architects of the time (who, of course, lived in Georgian housing by preference).

  13. “The rent paid by council/housing association tenants in the block could be expected to be sustantially less than the amount charged by a private landlord ”

    Why is a council subsidizing immigrants from the 3rd world to live in one of the most expensive places on earth?

  14. I can’t help but feel it’s bloody stupid to park people in tower blocks if there’s any choice in the matter.

    There’s nothing wrong with tower blocks if they are inhabited by responsible people who share common values. They work fine in Singapore, Japan, and elsewhere. But shoving a disparate bunch of immigrants from the third-world into such a place? That’s bordering on negligence. Even if they’d had full fire-protection, and evacuation plan, and drills how many would have participated or even understood what was being said?

  15. There’s nothing wrong with tower blocks if they are inhabited by responsible people who share common values. They work fine in Singapore, Japan, and elsewhere.

    One thing that I’ve learned from network and systems design is that you should never have a single point of failure. If you look at the floorplan of Grenfell Tower you see that there’s a huge SPOF in that there is a single central shaft containing the lifts and the stairs which means that, effectively there’s only one way out. If that gets blocked you’re going to die and it looks to me like many did in this case.

    In the Japanese “mansions” a.k.a. nice apartment complexes I’ve been in there is always a second way down (like many hotels there’s a lift shaft and stairs at/near one end and emergency stairs at the other). I don’t know if that’s the case with some of the cheaper blocks but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a universal requirement because the Japanese have far too much experience with fires and natural disasters

  16. First thing I thought of when watching the television coverage was Piper Alpha. No one even vaguely associated with that project will ever forget.

  17. FWIW: I tried to read this article from a local authority computer. My access was blocked because of “Hate/Racism”.

  18. FWIW: I tried to read this article from a local authority computer. My access was blocked because of “Hate/Racism”.

    Heh! It was only a matter of time, I expect.

  19. “Mohammed came to this country for safety and the UK failed to protect him,” the group said.”

    Since when has it been the UK’s responsibility to make the world safe and protect people from third world countries? Hell, the UK doesn’t even provide that for its own people.

  20. In the USA they have fire escape stairs on the outside of the building. These wouldn’t have been useful in this disaster – the whole exterior went up in ten minutes.

    £1600 a month to live in that? Fuck me. Did anyone actually pay that much from their own money? London.

  21. It says a lot about me I suppose but I don’t care much what happened, I care about the weaponising of the incident though.

  22. I have only ever dealt with wildfires, but many of the same things hold true. People never seem to learn though. I have watched people with a garden hose stand on their roof trying to wet it down as a wall of fire 50 feet high heads towards them. A crown fire can move with the wind speed, and you could be dead in moments. When a wildfire starts, evacuate. That and pay your insurance premiums

  23. The problem with fitting emergency shutdown valves in residential buildings is having to get access to every single flat to reignite the pilot light on the boiler system if for some reason the valve shutdown it sounds trivial but trying to gain access to flats where people are working during the day or night or just would not open their door was a pain in the ass,there was normally enough gas pressure/volume in the pipe for the light to stay on but we still had to check every flat and like Grenfall there could be hundreds.

  24. “Please forgive my total ignorance of high rise buildings, but what is the purpose of a “boiler”? And why would there be one in each flat?”

    Gas is supplied to each flat. Each flat has a boiler which provides hot water and central heating.

    No specific to high rises, this is just the most common installation in the UK.

  25. I did think “Piper Alpha” when I heard the “stay in your flat if there’s an alarm” thing. I’m using my unverified recollection – but – iirc weren’t the folk waiting dutifully togged up / for instruction in the mess area the largest group of casualties?

    One feature of life offshore is drills – and in my not so humble estimation an annual evacuation drill for a municipally owned and run facility like this building is not an onerous thing coupled to a regular test of the alarm system at well known times.

    There are going to be a number of lessons learned from this fire.- one can only hope that they aren’t of the municipal lip service variety….. I live in hope that the assorted coffin dancers also learn a lesson and that it is a harsh and uncomfortable one too.

  26. @Steve, “boiler” is the unreasonable name used in Britain for a device the job of which is not to boil water but to heat it. Americans use the less unreasonable “furnace”.

    I don’t know why we say “boiler” in Britain: maybe because they came under the same safety regulations as boilers?

    Long ago, in my petrochemical years, I was told that the boilers on the plant – real boilers, thingies that boiled water – were governed by stringent regulations that had started life in the 19th century and been amended again and again since. Whereas the thingies we used for boiling hydrocarbons – those flammable, explosive substances – were not governed by such specific regulations. Not that it mattered: the company imposed its own stringent regulations on them.

  27. I would also think there would have been at least a 6″ reducing to a 2″ steel gas main riser running out to 3/4″ to the meter for each flat in a service duct somewhere in the Grenfell building probably a dry riser for the fire service to connect to as well.As for boiler a device which heats water in an enclosed pressurised vessel.

  28. On not forgetting Piper Alpha. I was working on a road bypass in a little Scottish town called Forres. We were out and about that summer night and were surprised to hear the noisy Nimrod aircraft taking off that late at night from nearby RAF Kinloss.

  29. Thanks fellers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen central heating, or heating in a house for that matter.
    We do make hot water here, in a thing called a “hot water ..er… unit” useful for hot water in the sink when washing up, running a hot bath, things like that.
    The cost of heating water for a hotel makes my eyes water, I’d hate to think what’d happen if we also had to heat the place.

    Piper Alpha I do recall, the news managed to penetrate even to where I was. Though I didn’t know much beyond the basics (i.e. an oil platform caught fire & lots of people died horridly) until the internet got to the point it had enough information to become a source.

  30. I did think “Piper Alpha” when I heard the “stay in your flat if there’s an alarm” thing. I’m using my unverified recollection – but – iirc weren’t the folk waiting dutifully togged up / for instruction in the mess area the largest group of casualties?

    Yup. The ones who survived either couldn’t get to the accommodation module or decided to chance their arm by jumping into the sea. The ones who did what they were supposed to and stayed in the accommodation module and await rescue all died.

  31. Part of the problem with Piper Alpha was retrospective government legislation that required the operators of the oilfields to collect gas that they had expected to flare off.

    The consequence for that particular platform was a bunch of people housed near the gas-handling equipment that had been shoe-horned onto the platform.

    There is a chilling video about the whole affair. I had to watch it a couple of times. It had the power to silence a room.

  32. I did the search and there were two kinds of cladding on offer: Reynobond PE cladding (PE=Polyethylene) and Reynobond FP cladding (FP=Fireproof) and the difference in price is not a whole lot, easily within the sort of millions they were spending on the upgrade.

    https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3806536/cladding-grenfell-tower-flammable-cheap/

    As they point out the “PE” grade is indented only for lo-rise buildings up to 3 stories where escape is generally quick and easy. The “FP” grade is intended for hi-rise precisely because of the increased risk of fire spreading.

  33. There is a chilling video about the whole affair. I had to watch it a couple of times. It had the power to silence a room.,

    Indeed, I’ve seen that one, and all the others. There were many, many mistakes made which contributed to that disaster happening in the first place, and then failing to deal with it once it happened. Yes, one of them was adding gas to the platform: it was only designed to deal with fires, not explosions, so the control room was wrecked in the initial blast.

    The good news is even now, almost 30 years later, the lessons learned are still dinned into us: a huge percentage of the design and operational requirements and best practices of current platforms come from what we learned the hard way on Piper Alpha. It gets mentioned *lots*.

  34. @dearieme & Tim N
    “There is a chilling video about the whole affair. I had to watch it a couple of times. It had the power to silence a room.”

    What is it’s name? Please post a url for it.

    Thanks

  35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PcDNRSsM24

    I reference it a bit when talking about ‘safety’ when I deal with people who believe the ‘layers of swiss cheese’ approach is the end of any safety issues. The problem being, of course, is that on a long enough timeline, all those layers, inventively, align.

  36. Pcar,

    I’ve seen lots of them, all shown to me at work, and can’t remember the name of the one I am thinking of. It might be this one, Fire in the Night, made in 2013, but have a browse through YouTube.

  37. The problem being, of course, is that on a long enough timeline, all those layers, inventively, align.

    Especially when you have the unpredictable human factor to consider.

  38. Of interest to a novelist? When doing some background reading on Piper Alpha I came across Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum, a robber-capitalist, funder of the Gore political family, and Soviet agent.

    Try inventing one of those, Tim, and making him believable.

  39. Root cause of the Piper Alpha incident was miscommunication, day shift did not realize that night shift had removed a valve from the secondary line and directed high pressure gas through it, which leaked and ignited. There was a problem with the main line pumps during the day shift, the operator checked and did not notice or see or become aware of (we dont know why) the work permit which would have shown him that the secondary line was incomplete and out of service and he would not have pumped gas through it. The day shift operator switched flow to the secondary line, pressure built up, the blind flange (bung) that was temporarily in place whilst the valve was removed leaked and the gas ignited.

    Any one of the simple devices shown below would have prevented this miscommunication, they are in use now and to my knowledge are 100% effective in controlling hazardous area management by physically preventing workers from doing something like this again it is also used to isolate moving equipment for maintenance and working in high voltage. They are just about infallible in my view.

    http://www.caulfieldindustrial.com/c/lockout_tagout-and-accessories/796

  40. David & Tim,

    Downloaded, first impressions good. Will watch tomorrow – bed time now.

    Thank you.

  41. Try inventing one of those, Tim, and making him believable.

    I’ve met a few people like that in life. 🙂

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