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Be more thoughtful about the debate on fire safety

28 September, 2017

The Chalcots estate

• CONCERNING fire safety in tower blocks, to the anonymous writer from NW8 (No more ‘stay put’! Why plan for only one staircase in tower blocks?, September 21), I say the following.

In referring to tower blocks as “death traps”, is your position that Part B of The Building Regulations is wholly inadequate and always has been, and that all single staircase high-rise residential buildings are inherently dangerous?

If so you should campaign for the Chalcots towers to be evacuated again, along with every single-staircase tower block in the country.

But before you do that, please note that the London Fire Brigade allowed reoccupation of the Chalcots towers after the original fire doors were reinstated to proper standard, and with other minor works completed.

Clearly the fire brigade decided that the Chalcots towers were safe to reoccupy under those circumstances, even though there is concern over the outer skin of the over-cladding installed in 2009.

Yes there are fire marshals in and around the buildings, that’s sensible and calming for residents. However fire marshals cannot compensate for buildings that are inherently unsafe. Therefore, as evidenced by their decision to allow reoccupation, the fire brigade does not think those buildings are unsafe.

Further, in the 60 years since residential tower blocks were first built in the UK, the combination of a non-combustible protected single staircase, rigorous compartmentation, and the use of non-combustible materials, have prevented serious fires; that is, fires where flash-over takes place from flat to flat.

Exceptions are where the original design for fire safety was compromised later by ill-thought out “refurbishment works”, for example, Lakanal House in Southwark and Grenfell Tower.

In London I live on the seventh floor of a concrete and brick tower block, with its single protected concrete staircase. It’s 15 storeys, built in 1965 and owned by Camden Council. I am sure it is safe; as are the expert fire engineers who’ve inspected it.

To be honest, I’m far safer sleeping in my flat on the seventh floor in this tower block, compared with sleeping on the top floor of any three- or four-storey Victorian or Edwardian terraced house (of which there are hundreds of thousands in the UK).

In those houses, there is no compartmentation, no fire doors, there is a single, unprotected, stair normally made of timber, onto which all rooms open directly. In such buildings, compromise of the staircase with smoke and fire can occur within a couple of minutes of a fire taking hold in any room.

To the writer from NW8, and others, I say please be more thoughtful in this important debate about fire risk.

The empirical evidence from the last 60 years in favour of properly compartmented, non-combustible tower blocks, each with a single staircase and well-maintained fire doors, is compelling.

RICHARD FERRARO FRIBA FRSA
Fleet Road, NW3

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