Cladding Crisis: Milan Lighting up the Scene

Search for the ‘Milan blaze’ into Google and it’s no surprise that a chic clothing retailer appears first. It’s a city famous for lighting up the fashion scene, gelato in all flavours and the striking Duomo cathedral. Despite this however, Milan has been in the news this week for a less than fashionable reason.

milan fire with blaze and smoke
The blaze at the Torre Dei Moro apartment block [Courtesy of The Independent]

On the 29th August, the 60m tall Torre dei Moro apartment block found itself ablaze. The event bears an uncanny resemblance to the UK’s Grenfell tower tragedy of 2017. A comparison widely made by Italian politicians. Firefighters broke through doors apartment by apartment in the search for anyone left inside and telephoned residents. Thankfully there was “no evidence of anyone missing” as reported by commander Felice Iraca. But the series of events begs the question, what has changed post-Grenfell and what next?

Cladding: The culprit:

What aided the spread of the fire, demolishing the 18-storey apartment building? The use of flammable cladding – installed only a decade ago. Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala expressed his surprise. He stated that it was “unacceptable” a building just over a decade old showed itself to be so vulnerable. While the Grenfell disaster resulted in 72 deaths, no lives were lost in Milan’s blaze. But the event has only set fuel to the fire. Questions of accountability, changes in legislation, and the need for governments around the world to take action remain.

justice for grenfell campaign
Justice 4 Grenfell billboards

Post-Grenfell: What really changed?

The worst UK residential fire since World War II – the Grenfell tragedy sparked the inquiry into high-rise building materials and an investigation as to who was responsible. The fire burned for 60 hours before being put out by more than 250 London Brigade Firefighters. Residents had expressed distinct concerns before the event itself. Two years on, and the first report from the inquiry revealed that the building’s exterior was indeed the central cause of the fire spreading. Furthermore, the cladding used didn’t comply with regulations. A second phase to investigate the broader causes began on the third anniversary in 2020. Local governments then investigated other tower blocks to find those that have similar cladding. Efforts to remove these are in progress.

Types of Cladding:

Of course, some types of cladding pose a greater risk of being flammable than others. Here we take a quick look at some of the most commonly used types:

timber cladding against blue sky

Timber:

One of the most aesthetically pleasing of them all, timber cladding is popular for residential properties and an excellent insulator. It’s also one of the most sustainable (so a lower carbon footprint) and can be purchased as boards, shingles, or panels.

Fibre cement:

Combine cement, sand, filler, and cellulose – the organic compound found in plant cell walls – and hey presto! You have fibre cement. Due to its guaranteed longevity and durability against elements such as fire, adverse weather, and insects, it’s grown in popularity. Quick to install due to its lightweight features, once set – it will not change when exposed to excessive heat or moisture.

vinyl record plays on wooden table

Vinyl:

Records might be old school but vinyl cladding isn’t going anywhere. One of the cheapest options, this cladding is versatile in terms of appearance – with different colours to choose from. It also requires very little maintenance and can be fitted with an additional layer of insulation.

Metal:

A durable option for industrial buildings such as workshops and factories – metal cladding is to a good extent non-combustible. While it’s not as eye-catching as its counterparts – it’s good to know that this recyclable cladding won’t end up in a landfill site upon the end of its life. With their own individual benefits and drawbacks -the most popular materials used in this category include steel and aluminum.

glass cladding on triangular shaped structural windows

Glass:

Love those high skies and city lights? Some credit is due to one of the best materials for cladding – glass. A lightweight material – the only maintenance required is cleaning. There’s no need to worry about discolouration or deterioration of the material. Glass can also easily be moulded to fit the contours of a building. Maybe Cinderella’s choice of a glass slipper wasn’t so bad after all.

Stone:

Stone cladding is one of the oldest types around – giving any building an air of history and heritage. It is typically seen as a luxury addition to domestic homes. Innovative stone cladding systems have been developed to make it practical and cost-effective. Due to its non-porous properties, it protects against leaks. A beneficial factor when considering locations that see a considerable amount of rainfall.

brick cladding outside home with christmas decorations

Brick:

Giving off a traditional appearance – cladding with brick does well against cracking, rotting, or pollutant damage. One of the most durable materials against the elements, and most commonly used for residential properties.

External foam:

Providing the highest level of insulation – panels can be cut to size and are available in different thicknesses. Its versatility makes it an attractive option. It is able to retain heat in the cold weather and keeping out warm air in the Summer. This in turn leads to a more energy-efficient building and lower energy costs.

grenfell fire ablaze
The Grenfell Tower ablaze [Courtesy of Wikipedia]

So what cladding was used in Grenfell?

Plastic and aluminum cladding was used at the Grenfell Tower. Or more specifically, Aluminium Composite Material, or ACM. A material made from polyethylene (PE), plastic sandwiched between two very thin sheets of aluminum. This was a highly flammable material made by Acronic – and one which didn’t meet building standards in England. The French-based company which produced the product failed to reveal the failed test for flammability to the British Board of Agreement (BBA). The BBA are specialist body that issues product certificates. The Board was never shown the class E ratings for the version of the cladding used. They knew nothing about them until a BBC investigation in 2018.

What next?

Since the fire, Arconic stopped selling their product – but argued it was simply the manufacturer of raw material. The company claimed it can’t possibly know the end uses for its products. Additionally, the argued that responsibility lies with designers to check their chosen products could meet building regulations. In response, the government put up £200 million to remove cladding from privately owned blocks. Although many argued this wasn’t enough. Grenfell United – a campaign group set up after the fire – stated that the government needed to do more to protect people in social (government-owned) housing. The pace of the inquiry has also angered many. Scotland Yard said they were unlikely to submit a file to prosecutors before “the latter part of 2021.” This means trials might not start until 2022 – five years after the blaze. No one has been charged yet.

arconic logo company sign
Arconic [Courtesy of Forbes]

Leaseholders: Feeling trapped

Four years after Grenfell and the loss of 72 lives, between 760,000 and 1.36 million people in the UK are caught in the cladding crisis. New regulations have rendered certain types of cladding unfit. Thus, many property owners looking to sell for retirement or move elsewhere have been stuck with properties that are unsellable. For example, at age 25, first-time buyer Cerys Owen purchased a flat in Cardiff in 2017. Now she is now being faced with cladding repair works that would cost her approximately £58,500. Wanting to move closer to family, the crisis has left her feeling “trapped and completely exhausted both physically and mentally.”

Freeholders and building managers have also been accused by campaigners of profiting from inflated commissions when removing dangerous cladding in the aftermath of Grenfell. For now, The government says it is aware of the issue and is taking steps to unblock the housing market, but many are angered by the lack of funding by leaseholders who have been made to bear the burden of replacing the cost of insufficient cladding.

duomo milan against blue sky

As this week’s news in Milan shows, the issue on cladding is in need of some serious tailoring. A problem that goes beyond Grenfell, Mosen managing director Fathi Tarada believes that governments across Europe are in desperate need of legislation to prevent similar disasters, asserting that “The world must wake up to the scale of the cladding crisis. It is not just a problem for one country.”

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