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Work / Opinion

Why materials matter: Seetal Solanki on the Grenfell Tower tragedy

One week after a west London 24-storey tower block erupted into flames in the deadliest fire in Britain for over a century, the controversial use of the “sandwich panel” cladding which encased Grenfell Tower remains at the heart of media coverage. Material conservationist Seetal Solanki, founder of material research consultancy Ma-tt-er explains why, in the aftermath of the tragedy, it is more important than ever that we understand the materials from which we construct our livelihoods.

London, a city that has embraced me with open arms, never judging me for my quirks or mishaps, has been under threat for the past few months. I feel the need to defend my city as it has defended me against all odds.

We Londoners are reaching a point of heightened tension and instability brought about by a string of sociopolitical shifts: Brexit, a new hung parliament, a spat of terror attacks and, a week ago, the extreme tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire which has – at the time of writing – claimed the lives of 79 formally identified residents, with many, many more missing from the building’s 127 flats.

There are multiple speculations around the initial cause of the fire, but the most commonly cited factor in the fire’s swift spreading among mainstream media outlets has been Grenfell Tower’s exterior cladding which was made from an Aluminium Composite Material (ACM). This particular material is made from polyethylene core, which is plastic-based containing petroleum, making up to 90% of the material of ACM. Not such a wise choice of materials when it comes to the health and safety standards of living as ACM isn’t fire-retardant.

This article is not about the reasons why ACM was used over other materials, as we all know it’s related to cost – even though it would have only cost £5,000 extra to put the correct fire-retardant material in, according to The Telegraph. Instead, I want to highlight the reason why materials do really matter: improper use can cost so many lives.

Materials have certain properties. These properties need to be realised and used to their potential instead of as a cost-saving exercise or for aesthetic purposes. As material designers, engineers and scientists, we have to understand these properties and put the materials through their paces by researching and testing. A friend of mine, Alessio Cuccu, a material engineer in Italy, posted on Facebook that “the presumption of knowledge of materials is a terrible limit to the prevention of similar tragedies; in order to understand them, they need to study. Testing! Study! Testing! First, and don’t let a real fire be the test that chooses one material instead of another.”

In the case of Grenfell Tower, style over substance prevailed and the most suitable, flame-retardant material was not used. Emma Dent Coad, the MP for the Kensington borough expressed her fury over the Grenfell Tower to The Guardian. "I can’t help thinking that poor-quality materials and construction standards may have played a part in this hideous and unforgivable event.” Emma’s response really resonates with a book I’m reading at the moment, Space Caviar’s SQM: The Quantified Home, which takes a quote from Le Corbusier’s book Towards a New Architecture relating to the improper use of housing materials in London, the UK, and across the world. “A house will no longer be this solidly-built thing which sets out to defy time and decay and which is an expensive luxury by which wealth can be shown; it will be a tool as the motor car is becoming a tool.” If a house is not built to last and is considered a luxury where are we going as a society? In the case of Grenfell Tower, it wasn’t solidly built if it went up in flames so easily and now there is catastrophic loss, and so many people are without a home and their possessions. More needs to be done. The basic human need of wanting to feel safe and trust that where we live won’t crumble or go up in flames is so fundamental we shouldn’t even be questioning it.

Crucial decisions should not be left until a tragedy like Grenfell Tower happens. The Rana Plaza disaster back in 2013 in Bangladesh is yet another extreme example of building with substandard materials culminating in the preventable death of 1,000 people. This just can’t keep happening.

The architecture and construction industry has to go through an incredible amount of rigorous regulations and testing of materials for the very reason that people and the environment are involved within that exact equation. For example some of the statutory standards and guidelines that architects and construction has to face in the UK are Lifetime Homes, the Code for Sustainable Homes, Secured by Design, Housing Quality Indicators, British Standards, Building Bulletins, Planning Policy Guidance Notes and the other 14 parts of the Building Regulations. So an enormous amount of red tape before architects even begin the design process. Materials do comply within pretty much all of the above but more needs to be done, especially since Grenfell Tower.

There is a great need for more material testing and regulations across other sectors too, so we as designers and manufacturers can understand how valid and viable these materials are and the consequences involved once they are put out into the world. Lifecycle assessments would be a great place to start, as we simply cannot keep producing without this in mind; our lives and the planet are too important not to.

Further public understanding of the value of materials and the importance of their use across all sectors is something that we at Ma-tt-er do on a daily basis. The next step is for us to meet with the people that can actually make a wider understanding of materials a reality. We are most definitely ready to have this conversation.