Spain’s tragic tower block fire highlights the world’s failing fire regulations

On February 22, a fire broke out in a 14-storey apartment block in the Campanar neighborhood of Valencia, Spain. Ten people died in this fire. Smartphone footage showed an awning over a seventh-floor balcony catch fire at approximately 5:30 a.m. CET, before the flames began moving upward. Within 15 minutes, the entire building was submerged due to 40 mph winds.

This hell was immediately compared to London grenfell tower fire, which killed 72 people in 2017. Although the cause of the Valencia fire remains unclear, attention immediately turned to the building’s cladding – material added to the outside of high-rise blocks to improve insulation and aesthetics, and which helped the Grenfell fire spread quickly. As of 2019, Spain, like many countries, allowed inflammable substance Incorporation into cladding on new tall buildings, While the law has changed, hundreds if not thousands of existing Spanish buildings are likely to be clad in non-flame-retardant panels.

The same danger is looming at the international level also. Many countries still allow the use of highly flammable cladding in construction. Others, despite restrictions on hazardous materials in new buildings, older buildings are still covered with layers of materials highly sensitive to fire. “Valencia will not be the last,” says Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science in the mechanical engineering department of Imperial College London. “Neither in Spain, nor anywhere else.”

The world’s cladding crisis stems from the latter. In the 1970s, the oil crisis created a problem for architecture: how to design more energy-efficient buildings in the face of rising fuel prices. The facades had to be rebuilt from the ground up. “They were once made only of stone, brick or concrete and were very simple,” says Rein. “But they play a complex role: the interface between inside and outside; Sunlight and darkness; Heat and cold; Noise and peace.”

Integral to the design of the new facades were synthetic polymers: materials made from chains of repeating subunits, and which are the main component of household plastics. Versatile, lightweight, strong and cheap, polymers became the wonder material for architects, providing better insulation and faster construction times than concrete mixed on site. Rein says this solved all his major problems, except one. “All polymers are flammable.”

For more than five decades, a polymer core has commonly been sandwiched between ultra-thin panels made of aluminum composite material (ACM) on the facade of modern high-rise buildings. “Architects love what you can do with aluminum. “You can tweak the facade, add shine and make it visually appealing,” says Rein, “and it hides the ugly insulation underneath it.”

While commercial ACM manufacturers have always fire tested these materials before Grenfell, the results were often obscured by the building construction sector, Rein says. A typical test would involve placing a blowtorch in front of the ACM – the metal would maintain a flame long enough for the manufacturer to claim it is “fire resistant”. However, the flammability comes from the polymers, not the aluminum. And these tests don’t necessarily engulf the material the way a real fire does.

“If you rotate the ACM 90 degrees, and attack the edge, exposing the polymer, the aluminum peels off in 20 seconds and explodes in a ball of fire, producing black smoke and large flames,” says Rein. Are.”

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