The recent fire at the Grenfell Tower in London which caused the death of over 75 people has once again put fire safety in the spotlight. What was the cause of the fire? Given the cause, are other buildings all around the world safe? Are buildings in India safe from a similar incident? These are natural questions that come to mind.

Cause of Grenfall Tower Fire
Experts believe that the main reason behind the fire at Grenfall Tower was the Aluminium Composite Panel (ACP) cladding. Experts suggest that what started as a minor fire in one of the apartments spread through much of the tower due to the flammable nature of the cladding on the exterior of the tower. It was installed at Grenfell Tower just a year before the accident. Normally, any fire in one apartment is not able to spread quickly to the rest of the tower due to the presence of internal walls, inflammable doors etc. But in this case, the cladding might have spread the fire quickly throughout the building leading to many more casualties before the fire could be put out.

Experts also believe that the space between the building structure and the cladding acted like a ‘chimney’, spreading the fire further. Hot air in this gap moved up like it would in a chimney, thereby aiding the fire to spread upwards. It is also believed that being a hot summer night, the windows of many flats were open and the curtains hanging from them could also have helped spread the fire.

A Brief on ACP Cladding
What is ACP cladding? It consists of two sheets of aluminum, with a core of polyethylene that is sandwiched in between them. Hence the name, Aluminum Composite Panel or ACP. The polyethylene core is considered to be relatively flammable. The cladding at Grenfall Tower was manufactured by Arconic (Formerly Alcoa), a leading Aluminium company. Arconic made two versions of this cladding, a standard one and a costlier incombustible one. The Grenfall Tower building used the standard one. As per rules prevailing in the UK, this product was permitted to be used. However, the same cladding is not allowed to be used in many countries, once the building is above a certain height. Authorities in the UK are now relooking into the prevailing rules and even evacuating buildings with similar cladding, in order to replace their cladding.

ACP is Widely Used in India. How Safe Is It?
The use of ACP cladding is widespread in India. Due to its glossy appearance and aesthetic pairing with glass, ACP is preferred for cladding of commercial buildings like offices, IT parks, malls and hotels. ACP provides a modern touch to all such commercial structures.

It is now important to relook into the type of ACP cladding being used in India. Are they similar to the ones that were used in Grenfall tower? A quick glance at some websites seem to suggest that they are. If yes, then what should be the plan to mitigate fire risk in such buildings? If replacement turns out to be the only option, then what should be the time frame? Should occupants continue to use such buildings in the interim? Is there enough supply to replace all such cladding quickly? Should rules change to allow usage of fire-resistant cladding alone? As of now, there are more questions than answers.