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Grenfell Tower Fire
03 Feb 2022

Apartment tower twice as high as Grenfell planned in London - with one single staircase

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The London Fire Brigade has serious concerns about the single staircase planned in the 170 meter residential high rise  "Cuba Street Tower" on Canary Wharf in London.

 

It is now 5 years since the Grenfell Tower fire which claimed 72 lives. Many buildings still have flammable claddings in the UK, and discussions of who should pay for upgrades are ongoing. Now, a 51 storey building is being planned in central London - with only one staircase.

Grenfell Tower was a 20 storey apartment tower in North Kensington, London, built in 1974. When the building burned on June 14, 2017, it had 127 apartments and 227 bedrooms. 72 people died in the fire and many others were injured by smoke inhalation.

It had been recently refurbished 2015-16, according to an article on Wikipedia, and in connection to this, it had also been equipped with a new cladding.  CTIF.org has written previously about the rigged fire tests which led to the exterior wall cladding material being approved, despite the panels actually being made of styrofoam and highly flammable.

When the building burned, the fire service counted on the building being designed for each apartment to hold off smoke and fire out for a certain amount of time, and told residents to remain in their apartments, instead of trying to exit through the staircase. 

However, because the cladding was more flammable than what the rigged tests had shown, the fire spread allegedly through the exterior of the building,  leading to residents being exposed to highly toxic smoke gases while waiting for rescue inside of their homes.

 

Photo: Brian Wolovicz NGO Photography
Photo: Brian Wolovicz NGO Photography

 

Many tall buildings still have flammable cladding materials similar to Grenfell

Still to this day, many of buildings remain in the UK with flammable materials which have been deemed unsafe and should be removed. According to an article in the New York Times on January 10, 2022, the Great Britain Housing secretary announced plans to overhaul the government´s approach to building safety, and proposes that the costs for removing and replacing flammable materials should fall on the developers.  

Reportedly, in 2017, during the months following the Grenfell Tower, investigations showed that the number of buildings with cladding similar to that of Grenfell Tower was up to 600 in all of England. Some of these issues have been addressed, however many building projects allegedly still remain with flammable cladding on their exterior walls due to uncertainties surrounding who is responsible for the cost of replacing it.

 

One single staircase for a 570 feet building 

Concerns are recently rising in the UK about high rise and mid rise building safety in general, and it has been suggested rescue staircases should be designed differently based on what happened in the Grenfell Tower fire. Since an extra staircase would take away space which could be monetized as residential areas, it is thought that developers are resisting putting in an extra staircase, despite safety concerns.

The UK building code only requires one single staircase, even for a building as high as the Cuba Street Tower.

The international building code however - which is adopted by many countries and US states but not the UK - requires that, residential blocks need to be built with at least two staircases if the building is taller than four storeys.

One of the main safety concerns is that residents would need to use the same staircase as the firefighters would be using during a fire - which could lead to smoke inhalation for the residents trying to exit the building.

In an article in The Guardian on January 10, 2022,  UK fire experts criticized the design of the Cuba Street Tower, a new 51 storey apartment high rise close to Canary Wharf in London.  The apartment tower is planned to house more than 420 apartments and more than 650 bedrooms. 

 

London Fire Brigades writes Letter of Concern re: single staircase in a new 173 meter building

Despite that all apartments in the Cuba Street project above 11 meters are planned to be equipped with sprinklers, fire safety experts feel evacuations may still be needed in case of a fire.

An article in the Daily Mail, claimed on January 13 that the 428-flat tower block will be one of the tallest residential buildings in the UK. It will be 570 feet (173 meters) which is more than two-and-a-half times the height of Grenfell Tower. 

According to the same Daily Mail article, the London Fire Brigades have serious concerns about the single staircase and has addressed the city in a Letter of Concern:

"... We do not believe that sufficient justification has been provided for the tall single stair approach, nor do we agree that particular aspects of the design are compatible for such an approach. Furthermore, in our opinion there are insufficient facilities provided to support the safe egress for disabled occupants...".   

Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor and fire safety expert, said in the Guardian article: “It is utter madness that this is still allowed.”

Tarling allegedly has recently inspected a newly built apartment tower in the same area of London and discovered serious failings that would mean residents might not be safe to stay in their flats in a fire. 

He then referenced the recent deadly Bronx fire, where many casualties could have been avoided had fire escapes been installed in the building.  The worst-case of having only a single staircase would be  “another Bronx fire, another Grenfell, or another Lakanal type fire”, he said. 

 Natalie Carter, a resident at New Providence Wharf and part of the Tower Hamlets Justice for Leaseholders group., said to the Guardian:

“If they do need to evacuate for any reason you are talking about doing that on the same staircase the firefighters would be using, it just seems absolutely bonkers.”

Natalie Carter is herself a survivor of a fire last May in the New Providence Wharf, where three residents were injured due to smoke escaping into the corridors during the fire.

The London Fire Brigade then found that the ventilation systems, the firefighter elevator and the door holders did not perform as they had been designed.