EU’s renovation wave must learn lessons from Grenfell tragedy

15 June 2021

Stark warning on four-year anniversary of tower-block fire disaster that killed 72 people. This article appeared first in POLITICO on 15 June 2021.

By Mirella Vitale, Senior Vice President, Group Marketing, Communications and Public Affairs, ROCKWOOL Group.

Four years ago this week, one of the worst fires in modern European history broke out in the Grenfell Tower in London. Amid scenes of unimaginable horror, firefighters struggled to rescue people trapped in the upper stories. Seventy-two people died in the disaster. 

The tragedy was compounded by the unpleasant truth that it most likely could have been averted. What started as a kitchen fire triggered by a faulty refrigerator became an inferno as the flames broke out of the flat and, fueled by combustible façade components, quickly engulfed the tower.

As the EU moves ahead with its ‘fit for 55’ package to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 and enters a trajectory towards net zero emissions by 2050, it must learn from the Grenfell disaster. Why? Because buildings are a linchpin to achieving these goals.

The buildings we live and work in account for more than one-third of the EU’s energy-related emissions. They are also our most valuable asset class, worth tens of trillions of euros. This is why President von der Leyen, Executive Vice President Timmermans and Commissioner Simson are championing the importance of a renovation wave to retrofit at least 35 million buildings by 2030. Their logic is simple: succeeding on climate action and the economic recovery requires a vastly more energy-efficient building stock.

But it must be done right. The exterior of the 50-year-old Grenfell Tower was renovated in 2016 as part of the U.K. government’s campaign to improve the energy efficiency of its social housing stock. While the thermal performance of the building was improved, the plastic cladding and insulation used for that purpose was combustible, estimated to contain a fuel-load equivalent to approximately 30,000 liters of petrol. “The fire floors we went in were helmet-meltingly hot,” said one firefighter. 

As well as spreading the fire, the plastic materials were the “main source of smoke particulates, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide” according to expert witness Professor David Purser in a report developed as evidence for the Grenfell Inquiry, and are “likely to have contributed to the incapacitation and deaths of flat occupants.”

The European renovation wave is all about increasing the rate at which buildings are upgraded. The annual renovation rate in the EU is currently around 1 percent. To make an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, that rate must at least double and ideally triple. And these must be so-called ‘deep’ renovations: windows, heating and cooling systems, and above all, insulation.

The lesson from Grenfell is that for high-rise and high-risk buildings, it must be non-combustible insulation. The good news is that energy efficiency and fire safety are mutually supporting objectives: there is no need to compromise one to achieve the other.

Yet combustible insulation still makes up a substantial portion of the European market.  If this trend continues, millions of buildings are likely to be upgraded under the EU renovation wave with combustible materials. This would risk creating homes and offices that are more energy efficient but less safe for residents and occupants.

To avoid this, the EU should strongly encourage member countries to adopt stricter fire safety standards that ban the use of combustible materials on high-rise and high-risk buildings like schools, hospitals, care facilities and other buildings where emergency evacuations can be challenging. Today, fire safety legislation differs greatly among member countries, with these disparities creating unequal levels of protection for EU citizens.  A more coherent and consistent standard would contribute to ensuring that the renovation wave is done in the safest way possible. Member countries have pushed for precisely this holistic approach in their common conclusions during last week’s Energy Council.

More than any other of the ‘fit for 55’ proposals, the renovation wave is all about local jobs and local benefits. It is climate action by the many, for the many. But there must be no compromises on safety. New research published by The Guardian shows that combustible plastic foam insulation is likely to have been used in more than 70 British schools built or renovated since the Grenfell disaster. The EU must do better.