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How Grenfell Tower Tragically Taught the World About Flammable Building Cladding

Commercial Real Estate professionals tend to think that if a building is relatively new, then there shouldn’t be many serious issues of concern. In the complex world of building materials though, newer is not always better. Over the years, our industry has witnessed building materials such as fire-retardant-treated plywood, polybutylene, and ABS piping, EIFS and engineered wood siding, oriented strand board, and Chinese drywall added to a growing list of items prone to poor performance and/or failure. The latest and possibly most dangerous addition to the list may be certain Aluminum Composite Materials (ACM) used in exterior cladding applications. 

The tragic June 14, 2017 Grenfell Tower apartment block fire in London is being investigated for links to new ACM cladding that was installed last year as part of an ongoing renovation. It is believed that a highly flammable polyethylene foam core used in the composite material may have accelerated and intensified the fire that originated from a single unit, which went on to engulf the entire façade and building, killing at least 79.


Aluminum Composite Material cladding is essentially rigid plastic foam insulation sandwiched between thin sheets of aluminum, often with an interior air channel. Over the past few decades, the material has become an increasingly popular choice for building façades because of its low cost, lightweight, and modern look that offer a range of colors, textures, and flexibility. The panels can use either fire-resistant mineral wool cores or highly flammable rigid thermoset foam cores consisting of various polyethylene (PE), polypropylene, polyurethane, or polyisocyanurate (aka "PIR", "polyiso", or "ISO") formulations. The flammable versions, which are less expensive than the fire resistant options, have been implicated as contributing factors in dozens of blazes around the world. They also enhance the toxicity of smoke generated by structure fires. The PE variety used at the Grenfell Tower was produced under the “Reynobond” brand by Arconic, a U.S.-based firm spun off from Alcoa in November 2016. Other notable fires involving aluminum composite cladding include the Torch Building blaze in Dubai (2015), the Address Downtown hotel and residential building in Dubai (2015), the Lacrosse Building in Melbourne, Australia (2014), a residential tower in Shanghai, China (2010) that killed 58, the Water Club Tower at the Borgata Casino Hotel, in Atlantic City, NJ (2007) and many others.


Flammable plastic core materials are banned in the U.S. for buildings taller than 40’ (2012 IBC, Section 1407, and NFPA 285), but may still be used on 1-3 story buildings. Scores of prominent high-rise buildings in Europe, Australia, the Middle East, New Zealand, and Asia are being newly scrutinized in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, and heightened concerns are extending to the U.S.


We anticipate that many owners, operators, and investors in commercial buildings will want to know if metal composite materials present at their site may pose an increased fire risk. We are tracking this issue for emerging best practices, changing codes, assessment protocols and enforcement trends, and will be keeping our clients informed as the issue evolves. Click below to learn more about our  Property Condition Assessment services and the red flags we help clients to identify.

For more information please contact Jim Bartlett, Senior Vice President.

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