When Facades Kill

A Problem of Extreme Flammability



The tragic fire of June 14, 2017 at the Grenfell Tower in London, England has brought to a very public global forum issues related to the impact of facade choices to the fire safety of a building, its occupants, neighbors and the fire-fighting crew. Such fires are becoming increasingly common as flammable Aluminum Composite Panel products have been used on thousands of projects prior to their used being banned in multiple jurisdictions only as distantly as 2012.

Facade systems have been developed for new buildings as well as to retrofit existing modern projects to increase energy performance and provide a facelift to banal or brutalist projects. Lighter weight facade materials have been favored over traditional non-combustible materials such as brick, concrete and stone, as a means to keep loading within the capabilities of existing structures. These lighter materials as well as many newer insulation types tend use petroleum based materials, making them highly flammable rather than simply combustible.

This paper looks at issues of product confusion regarding the specification of a range of available Aluminum Composite Panel (ACP) products that have contributed to the widespread use of a now partially banned product on many high rise towers. Vague building codes that lack robust fire testing and that vary by jurisdiction will also be seen to have contributed to these failures. The building height of 15 to 18m will be discussed as an appropriate measure of the acceptability of the use of a flammable facade. Practices surrounding the improper detailing of the rainscreen wall system associated with accelerating the Grenfell Tower fire will also be discussed.

Finally a series of recommendations will be made regarding appropriate building heights and the impact of exterior wall design for openings and balconies, for the use of flammable cladding.


Photo of Terri Meyer Boake

Terri Meyer Boake

University of Waterloo




The tragic fire of June 14, 2017 at the Grenfell Tower in London, England, has brought to a very public global forum, issues related to the impact of façade choices

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A Deviation From the Performance Expectations of Traditional Materials

The high death toll at Grenfell can be in part attributed to the directive from the fire department to “shelter in place” rather than undertake the risk of evacuation through

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Documentation and Evidence

What makes the case of Grenfell even more tragic is that it was not an isolated incident but one in a series of major cladding fires. This is a critical

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List of Significant Facade Fires Discussed

February 12, 2012 Tamweel Tower, Dubai (“Fire Breaks Out at Tamweel Tower” 2012)November 25, 2014 Lacosse Apartments, Melbourne (The Australian Business Review 2015)February 21, 2015 The Torch, Dubai (“Hundreds Evacuated

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Confusion After the Grenfell Fire

Immediately following the Grenfell Tower fire, numerous agencies made statements regarding the status of approvals for the cladding used, in rather obvious attempts to shift the blame. It was noted

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Inconsistency of Specifications and Global Fire Test Methods

Many of these new materials and innovative approaches to façade design and refurbishment have not been rigorously fire tested in advance of construction. Fire test standards vary around the globe

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The Larger Facade Design Issues Arising

The cases of these high profile cladding fires must be seen as central to the requirement for new regulations and best practices in design for all façades. Even where code

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Assumption of Responsibility:

As in the case of a catastrophic building disaster, nobody truly wishes to assume primary responsibility for the life and economic losses. Yet as professionals, architects must assume a role

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Hundreds of Towers with the Same Cladding

Where it may be clear that such flammable cladding systems should not be used on any future buildings, there have been identified well over 1,000 towers in the UK, UAE

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What has been outlined in this paper is at its best, a confusing situation. The root of the problem lies in the main with the production of a flammable cladding

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Rights and Permissions

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BBC News. “Dubai's Torch Tower Catches Fire For Second Time In Two Years.” August 4, 2017.

CBC News. Why Grenfell Tower became a raging, wind tunnel of a fire, June 16, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/london-fire-grenfell-tarling-expert-1.4163560

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Flame Spread Ratings. http://sfm.dps.louisiana.gov/doc_flamespread.html.

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