F THE many shocking revelations that followed the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, one of the hardest to comprehend was the fact that the building was wrapped in polythene.
As anyone who has set fire to a polythene bag will know, it’s a highly flammable material. That’s to be expected of a substance that derives from oil.
Learning that this particular plastic formed the core of the exterior cladding on the tower block was baffling to many.
The word polythene wasn’t used — it was called polyethylene — but the two plastics are essentially one and the same. Polyethylene is the more correct name scientifically and tends to be used when the plastic forms fairly rigid objects such as kitchen basins, milk bottles and detergent containers.
Polythene is the more commonly known term and it has become synonymous with softer items such as plastic shopping bags, wrapping and packaging.
So what was it doing encasing — and ultimately entombing — a building housing some 700 people?
The answer is no surprise to anyone in the construction industry. There was a time when bricks and mortar meant precisely that and the only plastic used in building was lego bricks.
But plastic in its many different forms and compositions has become a widely used material in buildings, inside and out. It is used in cladding, roofing, internal walls and dividers, window frames, windows themselves, doors, piping, wiring, flooring, bathroom suites — the list is extensive.
It is lightweight, waterproof and is great for insulating against heat, cold and noise. It doesn’t rust or corrode like metal, it doesn’t swell and splinter like wood, it’s more attractive looking than concrete and cheaper than brick or stonework.
It’s easy to maintain, hygienic and available in a multitude of colours, textures and finishes including transparent.
It can also be moulded into just about any shape, cutting down on the need for assembling multiple components and allowing architects to let their imaginations run wild.
Designers of concept buildings have embraced it enthusiastically. For examples, check out the Kunsthaus, or contemporary art museum, in Graz, Austria, a bulbous creation resembling a cross between an airship, an alien and an upturned football boot all encased in an iridescent acrylic skin.
Or the National Aquatics Centre, Beijing, also known as the Watercube, a large cuboid building resembling a box of coloured bubbles, all thanks to an external structure created from the plastic, ETFE, ethylene tetrafluoroethylene.
Our own Thomond Park’s handsome canopies that shield the stands from the winter winds but let in the light for grass regrowth are a polycarbonate creation.
The more modest but no less intriguing Plastic House on Dublin’s North Strand has graced many an architectural publication.
A small terraced Edwardian red-brick residence that retains its period exterior to the front, it has been completely gutted to replace interior walls and ceilings with plastic platforms and walkways, leaving it looking like a cross between the bridge of a spaceship and a wellness retreat centre — courtesy, mainly, of polycarbonate.
Plastics are also easy to handle, quick to erect and can often be recycled at the end of their life. Lifespan is a bit of an issue — 30-60 years is the general target — but then it’s easily replaceable and besides, there is a school of thought that says buildings should be as transient as their uses, and that people no longer expect to walk past the same buildings as their grandparents.
So what’s not to love? Quite a lot, according to Robin Mandal, a long-practicing architect and past president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, who says he is innately circumspect about plastics in construction.
“If you’re using a material that is plastic or is petroleum based, everybody knows that in the case of fire it will mutate into some other material and that generally petroleum-based products give off noxious gases, whatever about their flammability, and that they give off acrid smoke.
“These are the sorts of things we would know instinctively whatever about the certification that a material has,” he says.
And while he recognises the potential for the exciting new ways of building that plastic opens up, he cautions that new does not always mean better.
“Certainly in my generation there would be an instinctive wariness of miracle materials,” he says.
“There is a view that actually we should be using simple materials well rather than trying to be clever with complex materials.”
Joseph Little, architect and assistant head of the School of Construction at Dublin Institute of Technology, also has reservations about plastics.
“My preference is to use natural materials,” he says, “but natural materials don’t have a big industry behind them.”
That big industry is oil. Plastic was never the main reason oil wells were dug but it became a very welcome and lucrative byproduct of the refining process and Little understands the logic that drives its production.
“Taking oil out of the ground is expensive so naturally the companies involved want to make sure that they use that resource in every which way they can, extracting as much profit as possible.
“Besides that, there are very few insulants on the planet that we have yet discovered or invented that have as low a thermal conductivity as fossil fuel based insulants.”
In other words, plastics, even in quite thin layers, tend to lose heat very slowly, making them excellent for insulating buildings.
But are they safe? It emerged after Grenfell that the manufacturers of the cladding that burnt so catastrophically also produced a more expensive product that also used plastic but plastic that was treated to make it less flammable.
Numerous manufacturers take the same approach, offering a basic product, a flame-retardant one and, the safest of the lot, a fire-resistant version. It begs the question why the basic type is allowed to be produced for construction at all.
But CJ Walsh, a consultant architect and fire engineer, says that misses the point.
“We’re not so much interested in materials in isolation in building design and construction. How materials are put together is what’s important,” he says.
“So in the case of Grenfell Tower for example, it wasn’t just the external panelling that was important. It needs to be seen in terms of a whole cladding system so it was the external panels that everybody saw, it was the air gap behind it that you didn’t see and the insulation behind that again and all of that had to be fixed to the old tower walls correctly which didn’t happen.
“So it’s not that I’m worried about the use of plastic per se in buildings, it’s how you use plastic as part of a building system that’s important.”
Not that he’s keen to promote the use of plastics. “I’m worried generally about the use of plastics because plastic is becoming a persistent, organic pollutant in the planet. We’re using far too much of it in all types of manufacturing and industry.”
Joseph Little is also reluctant to put a blanket prohibition on certain plastics and agrees it’s all about how they are used.
“If you have a single-storey warehouse and you want to reduce the heating load in a large open space, it makes sense to install this kind of insulated cladding.
“It wouldn’t need to be fire retarding because it’s one storey and open plan — anyone in the building has good opportunities to evacuate in sufficient time.
“But if I’m asleep upstairs in my house and a fire starts downstairs, I won’t be aware of the fire at the critical early stage and clearly can’t see it.
“It’s essential that the floor has sufficient structural integrity to last until I escape and that the route I take to escape is safe.
“If I’m somewhere that is too difficult to escape from due to its location or my disabilities, it’s essential that that place can act as a refuge till the rescue services arrive.
“That’s why we talk about fire compartments. Each of those apartments in Grenfell was meant to be a compartment in that they were meant to be complete and whole and protected so even though there’s a fire in one, occupants of other compartments can get out of their compartments or indeed remain safely within them.
“That can be achieved without the use of flame retardant materials throughout so long as there are fire breaks made of fire resisting materials in the right places.
“If continuous fire breaks had been installed at compartment lines in Grenfell Tower, the fire could not have moved higher than 2.4m, that is to say till it reached the next fire break, at least until the fire brigade arrived.
“The fact that clear vertical shafts of 30, 40 even 80 metres existed behind the cladding, and that warm air always rises, meant that there was a dramatic stack effect in the cladding zone. It was a long thin but very, very efficient chimney.”
Just like a chimney, it drew the warm air, flames and smoke rapidly and relentlessly upwards.
The awful irony of Grenfell was that the cladding was useless in the first place because of the way it had been applied, ensuring that it would not have made an effective insulant.
“Insulation which is isolated from the wall behind it by a shaft of cool, moving air has no thermal value. As a result the system — as installed — had a decorative value only.
“You could claim it was a cynical exercise or you could claim it was a clueless exercise but whether it was one or the other, even had there been no fire, it was a bad job.”
But if Grenfell exposed poor building standards, it also shone a light on outdated mindsets.
“There was a cultural understanding that fires don’t spread on the outside of buildings because there’s nothing outside that’s a fire risk. This was generally true when buildings had brick and concrete cladding.”
So what changes culture and thinking? Mandal, Little and Walsh all believe firmly that it requires education, regulation and inspection.
All of those exist to some degree but they want education to be the lifelong kind, regulation to be the up to date and robust kind, and inspection to be the expert, thorough and frequent kind.
It doesn’t sound too much to ask but let’s start with the question of education. In 2014 the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), eager to claw back public trust after the slew of building scandals over the previous decade, established CIRI, the Construction Industry Register Ireland.
It is a voluntary register of professionals, tradespeople and companies who have signed up to a series of commitments around standards and practices, including the requirement that they engage in continuing professional development (CPD) — regular, career-long education.
The initiative was adopted with the support of government. The environment minister at the time, Phil Hogan, said the register would be “placed on a statutory footing by 2015”, the idea being that nobody could legally do even small construction jobs without being on the register.
It’s not a revolutionary idea — many industries have mandatory registers — but 2015 has dragged its feet into 2017 and the most that has happened so far is that the draft heads of a bill to put CIRI on a statutory footing have been referred to the joint Oireachtas committee on housing, planning, community and local government for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Prior commitments on the committee’s schedule mean it is expected to be October before they start discussing it. And that’s only the start of a very long journey on the way to becoming law.
Joseph Little applauds the initiative, although he fears the statutory version, whenever it appears, may bend to lobbying and be watered down to allow an opt-out for smaller operators or for particular works which he believes would be a mistake.
“There was a widely held view amongst siteworkers that their original training as a tradesperson and the experience onsite since had given them all the knowledge and skills they needed.
“The worst are the site-workers who tell you with a smile that they’ve been hired from the neck down only.
“Obviously not the best builders, but the most numerous builders would have a view that: I know everything I need to know, don’t be annoying me. That’s not a great way to build when things are changing radically.
“The CIF recognised the need to move on from the sins of the past and the things that went wrong. One aspect of that was to do with education and knowledge and understanding of the systemic effects of exactly what we’re seeing with Grenfell.”
CIRI membership also requires signing up to a very comprehensive code of ethics that is broken down in 52 separate commitments.
There are specific requirements around bribery, finances, treatment of workers and so on, but also lots about the decisions that are taken in approaches to projects. Broadly speaking, they aim to make sure that builders do the right thing even when regulations would let them do otherwise.
With Grenfell, it appears nobody breached any regulations in choosing the inferior cladding, but few would argue it was the right approach to take.
“Using better materials than legally obliged to use would be an ethical decision,” says Little, who knows only too well from his time in private practice the pressure that can be brought to bear on architects from quantity surveyors, and on quantity surveyors from construction companies, to go with the cheapest alternative.
“I have been in a position in the past where I was asked to downspec an element of a project repeatedly with a clear impact on future longevity and quality.
“That’s not a nice position to be in, and no-one is served by it apart from the original developer who is pushing capital costs below any reasonable level to flip the project for maximum profit.
“I’ve worked for developers who clearly intended to become multimillionaires in one project. Society and subsequent owners paid the price. What was allowed to happen in the boom in that regard was very wrong.”
Ethics are subjective, however. Shouldn’t building regulations take the wriggle room out of decision-making?
Before the Building Control Act of 1990, Ireland didn’t even have a basis for standardised building regulations but instead relied on bylaws to oversee construction activity.
But the new regulations that were drawn up over the years that followed haven’t exactly streamlined matters as much as might have been expected. Building materials are a case in point.
“All works to which regulations apply shall be carried out with proper materials and in a workmanlike manner,” Part D of the regulations state.
But “proper materials” can be anything that has a CE mark or that complies with “an appropriate harmonised standard or European Technical Assessment”, or with “an appropriate Irish standard or Irish Agreement Certificate” or with “an alternative national technical specification of any State which is a contracting party to the Agreement on the European Economic Area”.
Convoluted would be an understatement as there are any number of different testing and certification bodies across the EU and all sorts of new and tweaked materials being produced each year.
EU Regulation No 305/2011, otherwise known as the Construction Products Regulation, is an attempt to harmonise some of the procedures involved in getting a building material on the market throughout Europe but it still relies on a myriad of assessment and testing bodies and hENs, EADs and DoPs — harmonised European standards, European Assesment Documents and Declarations of Performance.
Compliance with the regulations doesn’t necessarily mean a particular product is appropriate for use in all works — that’s up to the user to assess. And while they set out a grading system for flammability that attaches a grade to a given product, each country can decide what grade is good enough to be used in which setting.
CJ Walsh says it wasn’t meant to be like this. “Back in the 1980s when all this was starting out, the goal was a single European market in the construction sector.
“You can only have a fully effective single market in the sector if you harmonise building regulations. The member states all went ape when this was suggested and so the European Commission is still very shy of proposing that we harmonise building regulations but that’s what should be happening.
“As it stands each member state is allowed to set the level of safety within its own jurisdiction and the EU does not have competence in that area yet.”
Walsh says the situation is not helped by Ireland’s unquestioning adoption of British building regulations.
“We just took the model of the English and Welsh building regulations and put Irish covers on them,” he says. “You saw the outcome of the English building regulations in Grenfell Tower. They are deeply flawed and we have copied that system.”
Robin Mandal sees it somewhat differently. “The British building regulation system is among the best in the world. The Americans are very good at it too but the British for hundreds of years have been building buildings according to regulations and they have done a very good job of it.”
The weakest point in the system, they all agree, is inspection to ensure the regulations are adhered to.
“We have no effective system in Ireland of independent building control or independent technical control of buildings so people are not checking that products are properly tested and approved,” says Walsh.
“That’s how we ended up with the pyrite problem in Irish houses - nobody is checking the quality. That all goes back to Part D of the Building Regulations. Somebody should have been checking the quality of the stone used in the foundations.
“There are many quality products out there but there are also cheap and nasty products being produced everywhere around the world, even in Ireland, and there is nothing to prevent building designers and builders from substituting a bad product for a good product. If they can save a few euro by getting it cheaper, that’s what they’ll do. That’s what happened in Grenfell Tower.
“Building control sections in local authorities are under-staffed and under-resourced and because there’s no effective national system of independent building control, anything and everything can go on.”
Joseph Little shares those concerns. “The lack of a building control culture in Ireland and the small number of building control officers employed by local authorities is a real problem.
“I would say things have improved in terms of building design professionals engaging with compliance. I think probably individual people have sharpened their game and there is an improvement, but the system is still not good enough.”
Apart from building control officers, the system relies on a souped-up version of the self-certification that allowed so many substandard buildings to appear during the Celtic Tiger construction frenzy.
It’s souped up in the sense that there are restrictions on who can certify a building as compliant with the regulations. Since 2014, the ‘design certifier’ — who certifies that the design of a building is compliant — and the ‘assigned certifier’ — who certifies the construction is compliant — must be a registered architect, registered building surveyor or chartered engineer.
But they can be one and the same person and they can be part of the design and build team so they don’t have to be independent, which is a major criticism of the scheme. They do, however, put their reputations and careers at stake as if something goes wrong that they should have flagged in advance, a claim can be made against their own professional indemnity (PI) insurance.
Unsurprisingly, that amendment to the regulations is not popular among the professions involved. But Joseph Little says it’s not just that his PI insurance has increased - he’s paying close to €3,000 a year for €600,000 cover and he does very little certification work since joining DIT.
He says the scheme is flawed in that the claim on the insurance kicks in from the date of discovery of a problem, not from the date of certification. So if the certifier has retired, died or moved out of private practice in the meantime and let their PI insurance lapse, the claimant could have to take a case against their personal assets - a process that’s likely to be long, painful and not necessarily successful.
Another flaw, he says, is the requirement that the certifier must stand over the building in its entirety, regardless of whether they’ve been involved in the entire construction or not, or if it’s only an extension or retrofit that they oversaw.
“The DC is certifying that the building is designed to 100% compliance with the Irish building regulations and the AC is later certifying that the building is constructed 100% in compliance. That relates even to what happened onsite when they weren’t there. It relates to the work of other specialists with skills the certifier doesn’t have.
“It’s asking you to state categorically that every aspect of this building is absolutely compliant when there are aspects of it that you are not in control of.”
Robin Mandal agrees that the regulations place a considerable burden of responsibility on a certifier but he says it reinforces the need for caution around what goes into buildings.
And that, he says, should temper whatever urge a building designer might have to experiment at the expense of certainty. That applies particularly to new materials, including the ever expanding array of plastics.
“ As architects, we would seek innovation, innovation comes in different forms. For the architect, I think the innovation comes in the innovative design and use of proven materials rather than relying on new materials.
“That isn’t to say that even the materials that are tested, as Grenfell showed, are foolproof. Testing is done to certain standards and you can’t test for every eventuality so something may happen that is outside of that remit.
“How they fail may not have been envisaged in their certification and that’s where the architect does bring a wider view. We’re trained to look at the bigger picture.”
So just how plastic is that picture? “I think if it hasn’t already hit a peak, it will hit that point. Clients want materials that are sustainable,” he says.
“That isn’t to say that some plastics aren’t and I would say that probably within certain niches, plastics will be popular. But I do think that there will remain a lot of caution on the part of the profession.
“I was a student a very long time ago but one of the things we were taught was to calculate the actual embedded energy in a project. We would work out how much energy does it take to make it and how much energy will it use during its lifetime and how much energy is it going to need when it’s finished and needs to be replaced. I think those questions are more important than ever now.”
Little also has questions around the sustainability of plastics and, in particular, about ‘off-gassing’.
Newly manufactured plastic products can release gasses for years after they’ve rolled off the production line. The most dramatic release occurs during and immediately after production but they can continue to lose thickness slowly over their entire lifetime. Plastic insulation boards are typically faced off with foil or fibreglass which will slow down the rate of off-gassing but questions remain about the effects of the shrinkage on the stability of the product in the long-term.
“The manufacturers want to tell us as little as possible about those things because they want us to feel that the product is somehow perfect, ageless and ready to go at a great price point — just go for it and stop thinking,” says Little.
Robin Mandal says the response must be practical.
“The shock, certainly for me and I think a lot of the profession, was that even when you have a robust regulatory system, disaster can happen.
“The shock of seeing a building conflagrate so quickly scared the living daylights out of anybody who is involved in construction. It has had a very sobering effect.
“It doesn’t make it any easier on people who have lost loved ones but I would say it will lead to the prevention of anything like this happening again.
“If you compare it to aviation accidents, what investigators always do is, rather than simply say it shouldn’t have happened, they examine how it happened and try to make sure that chain of events is never repeated.”
Little also wants the reaction to Grenfell to translate into action on safety. He’s concerned about the current obsession with energy efficiency in construction and in particular the rush to retrofit older buildings with insulation.
“Anything that we do in terms of energy efficiency should not affect the safety and health of the occupants. There shouldn’t be a question about that.” He also believes a comprehensive inspection of all multi-unit residential buildings needs to be carried out across the country, not just those above a certain height. He knows it could open a can of worms.
“I’ve seen a lot of buildings where I despair of the poor quality of cladding or the poor quality of construction or where I can see that the costs were cut badly and the building is going to age badly,” he says.
“There’s a lot of timber cladding on buildings where you can see that, because either the specification was cut or the people who were designing it or fitting it didn’t understand timber, that the material isn’t protected sufficiently, or being allowed breathe.
“Consequently it looks wrong, possibly blackens and certainly will not last as long as good quality timber cladding can last.
“In other cases, I have gone to buildings where the fire compartment and the fire break material is either absent or is gappy.
“I have been to buildings where I have stood with the builder and you’re thinking ‘if we actually declare something here, we could make an awful lot of people homeless or we could devalue the property’.
“You’re into a horrible situation whereby you’re potentially taking the value of a property from someone or you’re making them safer. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. There are many buildings like that. There are many Priory Halls in Ireland.”
CJ Walsh is sceptical of the Government’s response here, to date, and in particular the decision to order a survey of the cladding on buildings higher than 18m or six storeys.
“Why 18m? It’s completely arbitrary,” he says, pointing out that Part A of the Building Regulations, for the purposes of requiring extra safeguards for taller buildings, defines multi-storey as anything over five storeys — a basement counting as one of the five.
He isn’t impressed with the response to the discovery of Grenfell grade cladding on Cork County Hall either.
“There’s a high-rise building in the south of Ireland and everybody is being assured that the cladding is on the lower levels so there’s no problem which is a load of baloney. The powers that be are trying to shemozzle the media and the public and everybody is swallowing this.
“There has always been this problem. We still haven’t got to the bottom of the Stardust yet. The ghosts of the Stardust are turning in their graves. We had our own Grenfell in the Stardust and we still haven’t got a proper investigation of what happened.
“I don’t have much faith in the inquiry that’s going to take place on Grenfell and they’re going to do the absolute minimum possible over here as well.”
Plastics — the material for the 21st century. So goes the slogan from Plastics Europe, the trade association representing plastic producers and manufacturers across Europe.
It is an impressive body with a persuasive message that relies heavily on the drive towards energy efficiency in buildings as a way of mitigating the effects of climate change.
“Today in Europe, buildings are responsible for roughly 40% of the EU’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas pollution,” it says.
“Improving the energy efficiency of new and old buildings is, therefore, one of the keys to tackling climate change and saving resources.
“Around 70% of the energy used in buildings is due to space heating and cooling. Making our buildings more energy efficient and reducing the amount of energy required is key to minimising their environmental impact.”
It points to EU targets set down in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive which requires new buildings to be “nearly zero energy” by 2021. A combination of solar panels, other green energy solutions and smart insulation is envisaged.
“Meeting ambitious targets on the energy efficiency of buildings would be difficult, if not impossible, without the solutions provided by plastics.”
To what extent does the construction industry agree? Well, construction has become the second largest user of plastics after packaging, using 9.6m tonnes of plastics in 2014.
But while the industry is quick and extensive in extolling the virtues of its product, it is rather more restrained in fire safety.
It has a 20-page brochure, entitled Plastics and Fire Safety, but it is page 15 before that topic is actually addressed, the previous pages focusing on extolling the virtues of plastic and dispensing general fire safety advice. When it does get around to the subject, it acknowledges plastics combust and give off gasses.
“Installed and used in the correct manner, plastics comply with all relevant regulations for the location and type of application in which they are used.”
It cautions: “The specific Euroclass of a given plastic product does not mean that this product can be used safely in all situations. For instance, selecting a construction product for an inappropriate application in terms of regulation may lead to an increased fire risk.”
And again: “Each type of building has its specific potential fire risks. This is why plastics, like all other materials, have to be used in the correct applications.”
It does, however, add that while plastics in building have almost doubled in the last 20 years in Western Europe, the number of fire fatalities “have drastically decreased”.
Plastic may be presented as a wonder material in terms of performance as an insulant, but there are natural alternatives that also do an excellent job and have the added bonus of being fire resistant without having to be chemically treated to the same degree.
Stone wool is a material made from molten rock that is blown into fibres and meshed together to form a dense layer of fabric.
The temperatures it takes to melt rock are unlikely to be reached in a typical accidental fire and even if they were, the fabric won’t flare up, making it naturally fire resistant. Wood fibre from commercial forests is also an option as are various wools, cork and even, bizarre though it may seem, torn-up newspapers. Their cellulose content smoulders but does not burn, and gives off little or no smoke.
Joseph Little of Dublin Institute of Technology says he is even following the progress of a project using recycled denim. Not only are the fire resistant properties of such materials proven, but, he says, they are more environmentally sustainable.
“If we are trying to decarbonise our society, why are we using materials made from oil?” he asks.
“Hemp and miscanthus can also be used. Hemp is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. In 100 days you can grow 4m of hemp and the land recovers and is ready for a different crop in a very short time.
“There’s a huge amount we can do from natural sources. If you burn wood fibre it will char but it won’t catch alight so the outside surface will blacken, the flame won’t carry and the charring protects the rest of the timber or the rest of the wood fibre.
“These materials don’t have quite as low thermal conductivity as plastics so they’re not quite as good at retaining heat for as long as the fossil-based materials but they have really interesting properties otherwise and may have come from sources that are more environmentally sustainable or have a higher recycled content. So you have to weigh up all the advantages. Unfortunately, we import almost all these materials. But we could manufacture them if the demand was there.
“Countries like Germany have a number of very large manufacturers of wood fibre so they are commercially viable. In Ireland, they are often a bit more expensive than fossil-based alternatives but things typically are when they are seen to be a niche market. As you mainstream them, typically you get bigger factories, economies of scale and costs come down.”