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After Chalcots, here are questions to Camden Council

05 July, 2018

The Chalcots estate

• I’M an architect with 30 years’ experience of high-rise housing and fire safety. Also, I live in Palgrave House, a 15-storey Camden-owned tower block.

I’m responding to Camden’s report on the evacuation of the Chalcots towers, (Chalcots evacuation: Independent review slammed for ‘shifting blame from Camden Council to fire brigade’, June 28).

First, the over-cladding systems at Chalcots were not identical to Grenfell. The visible panels on three towers at Chalcots were made of flammable “ACM”, similar to Grenfell.

However, the insulation behind the outer panels was different. At Chalcots the insulation was non-flammable and inert. At Grenfell it was flammable and toxic.

I think the towers at Chalcots were not evacuated primarily because of their over-cladding. That’s evident because the residents moved back while the over-cladding remained in place. The reoccupation was approved by the fire brigade.

Several reports say the towers were evacuated because the interiors were unsafe. I have sympathy with that. I’ve read there were dysfunctional fire doors, missing fire doors, lack of fire stopping, breaches of compartmentation, and other fire-related defects. It was those problems that Camden rectified in a panic, before reoccupation.

My questions for Camden are these:

1) Why were the Chalcots towers in that condition internally, when it is the council’s legal responsibility to properly maintain its housing stock, regarding fire safety?

And 2) Why were existing Fire Risk Assessments (FRA reports) not acted upon by the council some years before?

Camden was required to commission FRA reports on all its high-rise residential buildings in 2012. That followed six tragic deaths in 2009 at Lakanal House in Southwark.

At Palgrave House, where I live, the 2012 FRA report has still not been implemented. Camden has struggled for many months to procure an FRA works contract, five years late.

As part of this sorry tale, there was a fiasco in early 2018. Due to appalling management (admitted by the council), a contractor made Palgrave House (and nearby Cayford House) less safe than before.

They removed fire doors and partitions which protected the escape staircases, with residents living in the buildings. I raised the alarm. Camden knew nothing!

Then there was a panic and the buildings were made habitable again. But not yet improved in line with 2012 FRA reports. I await the next move with interest.

In conclusion: First, it’s a serious matter that Camden failed to deal in timely fashion with FRA reports from 2012, which set out specific actions on fire safety in Camden’s high-rise buildings.

Second, experience at Palgrave House and Cayford House shows that LB Camden has severe deficiencies in property management, and in their ability to procure and administer building contracts. (Message to Cllr Meric Apak: Management is the key, not who employs the workforce.)

Third, high-rise buildings are safe. The empirical evidence from 60 years of high-rise living shows that well-maintained original towers are fine. But that can change if they’re inappropriately modified, for example by adding flammable material to the exterior.

But, not all over-cladding is dangerous. Therefore, not all installations must be removed.

RICHARD FERRARO
FRIBA, NW3

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