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Why Building Codes Matter


On June 14, 2017, a 24-story public housing apartment building in London known as Grenfell Tower went up in flames. The inferno resulted in a devastating blaze that killed at least 79 people, with 64 residents still unaccounted for, and became the deadliest fire in the U.K. in a 100 years. As investigations unfold, the tragedy was hardly unforeseeable, with many residents and some fire safety experts calling the tower an “accident waiting to happen.” Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2016 with a type of siding or “cladding” that contains a combustible polyethylene core rather than a fire-resistant mineral core. The combustible cladding is slightly cheaper—approximately $5,500-6,000 was saved for the whole building. The insulation material used on Grenfell Tower was also extremely combustible; when combined with the flammable cladding and adhered to the building with a space in between the two creating a chimney-like effect, the fire spread vertically in minutes. Many residents on the upper stories never had a chance.


In the United States, most jurisdictions have adopted the International Building Code. The IBC requires cladding to pass the National Fire Protection Association testing requirement, which is called the NFPA 285. The polyethylene cladding does not pass the NFPA 285 test, and is therefore prohibited by the IBC for use in buildings higher than 40 feet. In recent years some U.S. jurisdictions have eliminated the NFPA 285 testing requirement due to its cost (it can cost as much as $30,000) as long as other fire safety measures are in place, such as a working sprinkler system and multiple staircases/escape routes. Minnesota, Indiana, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have exempted the polyethylene cladding from the NFPA 285 testing requirement.

In the current political environment both in the U.K. and the U.S. in which politicians tout that freeing businesses from the burden of regulations and the bureaucratic haze of red tape will spur economic growth, de-regulation and cost-cutting may have prevailed over safety. Advocates of exempting the cladding from testing requirements point to the lack of dramatic fires in the U.S. as evidence that such stringent code requirements are not necessary. However, fire safety experts refute this interpretation of the data, asserting that if anything the lack of many catastrophic fires here at home underscores the success of the IBC’s safety requirements.

In 2014 the Fire Protection Research Foundation, which is an organization in the U.S., counted 20 major high-rise fires around the world. In at least 6 of those fires, the polyethylene cladding was used. The countries in which those fires occurred were: France, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Australia, and the United States. In 2015 and 2017, Dubai, in the U.A.E., suffered two more devastating fires in skyscrapers built with the combustible cladding.


Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy of the scale of the Grenfell Tower fire to bring about much needed reforms. The manufacturer of the combustible cladding, Arconic (formerly Alcoa), has announced that it will no longer sell the panels for use in high-rises. In a statement, the company said that the inconsistency of building codes across the world and issues that have arisen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy regarding code compliance of cladding systems in the context of buildings’ overall designs led to its decision.

At least one jurisdiction in the U.S. is considering putting the NFPA 285 testing requirement back into its building code: the District of Columbia. Initially planned for the next time the code was revised, the reinstatement of the testing requirement may now accomplished by adopting an amendment to the current code.


If you or a loved one have been injured due to noncompliance with a building code or local ordinance pertaining to a building, apartment or home, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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