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Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Frugal Lesson of Grenfell Towers

By now, you must have heard of Grenfell Towers.

It happened in the wee hours of a Ramadan morning, in June this year. During Ramadan, Muslims eat during the night, stopping shortly before the break of dawn, when their fast begins. For them, Ramadan is a religious duty, and a way to remind themselves to be humble, to cleanse their hearts.

And rather uncannily, it all started in the freezer of a faulty fridge.

Grenfell Towers burning. Image from Reuters.

On that Ramadan morning, in the dark of night, residents of Grenfell Tower, in North Kensington, London, awoke to the choking smell of smoke, and shrieks of distress. A fire was burning up the place, and it burned like an inferno, from the bottom of Grenfell Tower right to its very top. Families called out for help, waving frantically from upper windows. Some threw babies and little children out the window, hoping they would be saved. The lucky ones managed to escape. But 87 people, by the final tally, perished in that terrible fire, scorched and burnt to a cinder, unidentifiable in death, roasted alive in the immense heat.

The Malaysian press made little noise, but one Malay newpaper lauded the Grenfell Tower's Muslim residents for sounding the alarm, while having their "sahur". (The morning meal which is taken before the break of dawn, before they begin a whole day of fasting.)

Shortsighted Decisions Cost Lives

The press had a field day highlighting the shortsighted decision by the building's management council. In 2012, a renovation plan began, to uplift the building's exterior.

To save a couple of million pounds, the management of Grenfell Towers decided to use a vulnerable exterior aluminium cladding, with a polypropylene core. There was a "ventilation gap" of 50 mm between the aluminium cladding and the insulation foam (made of polyisocyanurate, or PIR).

After the fire was over, fire safety tests were conducted. Both the aluminium cladding (with its polypropylene core) and the PIR insulation plates failed the fire safety tests.

Some experts described the 50mm "ventilation gap" as instrumental in aiding the rapid spread of the fire, because it functioned like a chimney. Observers noted that the cladding burned during the fire, and melted.

The lesson that this incident holds for us is that in making decisions, money (and cost saving) is an important factor, but not as important as the lives of others. Those lives that were lost, can never be recovered through court action or compensation.

The Ford Pinto was known to be fire and accident prone, yet its makers unleashed it to unsuspecting buyers.

This isn't the first time that men in position of responsibility have shown a lapse of judgement. In one famous case from the 1970s, Ford created an automobile called the Pinto. Through its testing phase, it became known that the Pinto was prone to fire and accidents, potentially fatal in nature. And yet, management executives decided that it was cheaper to pay compensation for court awards than to revamp the Pinto's design for safety considerations!

So, be wise, and be smart. Don't try to skimp on a few pennies but lose your limbs, or worse yet, your life, in the process.

Edit: After thinking about the issue a bit, I think there's another lesson to be learnt. And that's...

Don't create problems when there isn't one.

The Grenfell Towers fire was able to spread rapidly because of the faulty cladding. And the cladding  serves an aesthetic purpose. That means, it was meant to beautify the building. 

In terms of function, I think it has very little value but by beautifying the building, it makes the building more attractive. And that may mean the selling price for the units in Grenfell Towers could go up.

But imagine if they had not bought the building cladding. Then, the fire would not have happened, right?

So here's the thing. If they hadn't been worried about how the building looked, they would not have gotten that cladding done. And without that cladding, many lives would still be saved.

It was the original plan to get the cladding that was the real problem. But maybe it wouldn't have been a problem if the management council was willing to spend a little bit more to be "safe". That would have been money spent on fire retardant external cladding. And that might have saved lives, not take them away.

Thanks for reading

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