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The Grenfell Tower Fire: Failing to Understand Complexity in Tall Building Design

  • Fire & Risk Alliance Conference Room 3106 JM Patterson Bldg College Park, MD, 20742 (map)

Professor Jose Torero
John L. Bryan Chair in Fire Protection Engineering, UMD
Director, UMD Center for Disaster Resilience (CEE)
UMD Department of Fire Protection Engineering, Department of Civil Engineering

In 2017 Jose Torero accepted joint appointments as the John L. Bryan Chair in Fire Protection Engineering and director of the Center for Disaster Resilience. During this intriguing and information session he will discuss combustible cladding, the Grenfell Tower disaster, and the challenges posed to builders, regulators, and the public associated with technological advances and fire safety.

The London Grenfell Tower fire tragedy on June 14, 2017, is a particularly extreme example of a technological failure with important policy dimensions. In the immediate aftermath of the event, the UK government proceeded to test the systems that failed declaring 100% failure rate. The performance assessment remains undisclosed at this stage, but the evacuation of several buildings housing a low-income population has followed. The expectation is that within the next few months the number of evacuated buildings might reach the hundreds. The German government has followed ordering the evacuation of several buildings, thus the impact will extend beyond the UK borders. The associated social impact is going to be enormous. The real question is not only how this failure occurred, but also how a solid regulatory system can deliver a situation where 100% of the buildings tested failed the regulatory requirements.  Modern tall building design involves the integration of complex features such as new constructive systems, new materials, optimized structural design and challenging architecture. Strong drivers like social demands, energy conservation and cost direct the design process. While this applies to all modern infrastructure, there is an over-emphasis on optimization when it comes to tall buildings. While achieving much progress in meeting many of the demands of these drivers a “wake” of complexity has resulted. This presentation will discuss, in the context of the Grenfell Tower fire, the design of the building envelope and its role on guaranteeing the safety of building occupants as well as the knowledge gaps generated through complexity and that reduce the designers’ capacity to predict performance.

Please join us for what is sure to be an informative and intriguing session.

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