Around 1am local time, a unknown fire started on one of the lower floors of the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London. Details of the fire are scarce as the primary focus at the moment is search and rescue, but several people died and many more were injured during this disaster. As the United States moves to adopt performance-based structural fire engineering, it is important to use this event as an case-study of what went well, and what didn’t.
As of this writing, fire officials were able to enter the tower for search and rescue after getting the all clear from a structural engineer regarding the stability of the concrete. This is a major accomplishment of the structural system as the tower withstood a full burnout fire without failure. Some local reports suggest that there may be a slight tilt to the structure, but nonetheless it performed its duty to remain standing even after this extreme event.
As of this writing, 17 people have died as a result of this fire. This is unacceptable. The number one goal of structural fire engineering is life safety, which is accomplished by a well designed structural system. During this fire event, the structure held up its end of the deal, while escape routes and fire spread were not contained. It appears the facade system of the building caused the fire to spread quickly from the lower levels to the top, engulfing the entire structure. In addition, residents were apparently told to shelter in place at the beginning of the fire, something that probably hindered their ability to escape as the fire progressed. This event has made it very clear that structural fire engineering principles are only as good as the sum of its parts. If the facade transports the fire too quickly, or the escape route is not adequate enough, the structure can only do so much.