The Bartlett


Transcript: Space on Fire

In the first episode of Building Better Season Three, we discuss fire and the role it plays in architecture and design. 


fire, building, safety, people, tower, design, social housing, Eva, built, buildings, problem, area, regulations, gentrification, Kensington, UCL, years, question, cities, bartlett


Christoph Lindner, Dr Eva Branscome, Naomi Israel, Prof Jose Torero Cullen

Christoph Lindner  00:04

Hello and welcome to Building Better, a podcast about life and research at the Bartlett and how we are trying to build better

Christoph Lindner  00:16

My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I am also the Dean here at the Bartlett. In each episode, I'll be sitting down with other members of this community to explore a topic that captures a snapshot of what happens here. From innovative techniques to interdisciplinary ideas to groundbreaking results.

Christoph Lindner  00:45

In this episode, we are going to be talking about fire and the role that fire plays in architecture and design. Throughout history, fire has been a force shaping the cities we live in. And now more than ever, fire can and should be a key consideration in design. So I brought together two guests from UCL to discuss their work with fire. My first guest today is Professor Jose Terero Cullen. Jose is the head of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL and he specializes in Fire Safety Engineering. He's worked with tall buildings, historic architectures, and timber structures, and he has studied major environmental events like oil spills, and large underground coal fires, working to create unique approaches towards impact mitigation.

Christoph Lindner  01:43

I'm also joined by Dr. Eva Branscome, an associate professor in the Bartlett School of Architecture. Ava's research explores the historical development of artistic display, both in formal settings like museums and galleries and in countercultural actions and street art. Since 2012, Eva has been working with SPID Theatre Company, a West London initiative founded by Helena Thompson in 1999. SPID works with young people to explore the issues they face through theatre, and has explored the impact and response to the Grenfell Tower Fire. Through this work. Eva collaborated on an immersive production with Naomi Israel, a youth ambassador for SPID produced by Nnenna Samson Abosi and SPID theatre. And it explored life and architecture in the tower blocks, Lancaster West, Kensal House, Trellick Tower and Stanley Gardens.

Christoph Lindner  02:49

And I just want to give a quick content warning before we get started today, because the following conversation will discuss the Grenfell Tower Fire as well as other fires from across the world and in history. And we will be making reference to death and injury, although these will not be discussed in great, explicit detail.

Christoph Lindner  03:16

So let me start by just asking a really broad question. What is fire safety and how does it work in today's cities? Jose?

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  03:29

Yes, "fire safety" is a really interesting statement. Because for a user, for example of a building, it is a right, you are meant to be safe in the buildings that you're using. You know, for a government it is a responsibility. You know, fire safety is part of history. You know, fire safety, as you said, has molded cities in many ways, it could be perceived as regulation. But, but in essence, when we talk about fire safety it's the capacity that we have to create an environment that is safe from the ravages of fire. I mean, fire in itself, you know, is a very positive source of energy. Nevertheless, when we lose the control over the fire is when it becomes a challenge and where, you know, we need to be able to establish mechanisms by which we limit the impact the negative impact that a fire can have.

Christoph Lindner  04:23

So establishing mechanisms makes me think of design. And I'm wondering Eva and Jose if you have thoughts on the role that design plays in both creating spaces that are safe from fire, but also thinking of design as something that can interact with with safety and fire.

Dr Eva Branscome  04:48

So I think fire safety has also a lot to do, it has a lot to do with attitude and respect or lack of respect for more diverse communities. And for example, the fire at Grenfell Tower would not have raged out of control if the building had not been clad in highly flammable materials, and these were only really installed to make the building supposedly look better. So it was a design decision. And it had to do a lot with the increasingly gentrified houses that were around the Grenfell tower and below it. And the problem had a lot to do with class segregation that is extreme in the Notting Hill area, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is actually the nation's most affluent borough, but it also has this pocket of poverty and lack of opportunity and deprivation. This a lot has to do with the way the built environment actually looks like in 2017. So the year of the Grenfell Fire, half of Kensington and Chelsea's housing stock was valued at 1.3 million pounds, and the borough was ranked at the top, but at the same time, 36% of the homes were rented out to social housing, and on top of the significant areas in the borough scored it within the lowest 20% for child wellbeing and all of the wards were in North Kensington. So the people that lived that now live in the Victorian houses in Notting Hill did not want to really think of, of this. And this is also where then the architecture and design plays a role and Grenfell tower was a typical point block, it stood out from the buildings as a monument to the welfare state and social housing, I mean, literally stood out. And the concrete frame of the building was symbolic of this. And you could just see it from afar. And the new cladding was to cover over this, so that the richer neighborhoods didn't have to think about the closeness of social housing to their multimillion pound homes. But the concrete tower block as it had been built originally was actually fireproof.

Christoph Lindner  06:49

And Jose, I know that you've been involved with the Grenfell Inquiry and know that situation very well, and I know we'll come back to talking further about Grenfell, but one question I have is, is Grenfell quite an isolated incident? Or are there other versions of this kind of tragedy occurring elsewhere in the world? Or for similar reasons?

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  07:10

No, I mean, Grenfell not an isolated case at all. I mean, and and in essence, it goes back, you know, to what was being said before me to make many design considerations for a number of different reasons. And fire safety doesn't seem to ever emerge to the top. And and there's a real clear reason for that is, you know, we operate in an environment that has building regulations. And as such as citizens or as occupants or users of buildings, we actually do feel safe. It is only when something like Grenfell happens, that we wake up to the fact that we might not have fulfilled our right, you know, to be safe. And I think because we actually feel safe, we don't pay attention, we pay more attention to how a building looks, then to how safe that building is, because we've made the assumption that by complying with building regulations, you know, we have a safe environment, and therefore we are it is not a matter of our concern. Well, the problem is that because of this particular attitude, and the way in which the built environment has evolved, we have evolved also our building regulations in a way such that we have made design highly dependent on the competency of the professionals that are involved. And, and because we have made design so dependent on the competency of the professionals are involved, if you have a big budget, you can have an excellent design team. But if you have a small budget, then you have a not so good design team. And the result is that at the end, you have a gradient of safety that goes in favor of the rich and against the poor.

Christoph Lindner  08:53

While you were sharing that Jose, it made me think back to the history of skyscrapers, and from the very first skyscrapers in the late 1890s onwards, there have been tragic fires, this has been going on for over a century, has our attitude remained the same? So you've high- both you and Eva have highlighted what importance society or city governments or even residents may attach to the aesthetics of the skyscraper and that those aesthetics get prioritized over safety. But this has been going on for 100 years. Why are we not learning? Why are we not changing?

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  09:37

Well, this is a phenomena that we call design by disaster, no? They make design evolve. We make technology evolve. We have a number of different changes that are occurring occurring regularly on the way in which we build buildings and we try to keep up. So you know we have a disaster. We modified our building regulations. And, you know, we make them maybe more stringent, we add things to make sure that the buildings are safe. But then technology starts moving again. And then the bar changes its position. And then the result is that you have another disaster. So it's a cyclic process that has been going on, as you say, for more than 100 years. And and at the core of that cyclic process is that elements such as fire safety are chronically behind. So it is a change in technology, it is a change in design, that creates a new problem with which we need to catch up. So the science has always been years behind the technology or the design that has been put in place. But it only manifests itself once in a while in a disaster. And once a disaster happens, then all of a sudden, we are revisiting everything, we are changing everything, we are putting an effort to try to understand this technology is better. And we transform the way in which we do things. And this has been, as I say, it's been going on for a long, long period of time, very chronic and very cyclic after the Industrial Revolution, when we start seeing the densification of cities. And then all of a sudden, the fire problems became urban conflagrations. And we had to start making very drastic decisions on how we regulate construction. But from then on, it's been a cycle that keeps repeating itself. And we have not been able, you know, to break out of that cycle.

Christoph Lindner  11:29

So that's really fascinating that we have approach fire safety, through design by disaster. And Eva, you mentioned already the link that gentrification has to play here in creating conditions of inequality. And I'm wondering if you see some kind of intersection at all, between our reliance on design by disaster and the forces of gentrification that are reshaping cities like London in recent years?

Dr Eva Branscome  12:06

Perhaps to go back a couple of a couple of steps to the time that actually Grenfell tower was built in the early 1970s. There was another building in North Kensington that is just, I don't know, a 10 minute walk away, 15 minute walk away, and that is built in a completely different way. It's also out of concrete. And it was built by the architect Erno Goldfinger. It's also a tower block, but it has its stair tower and lift tower separate, it's not in the core of the building, like it would be at Grenfell tower, the stair core and lift core was in the center of the building, which then in a way, also acted as a chimney, to the fire and to the smoke. But design wise, there are options that were already existing at the same time that Grenfell tower was built, that actually worked incredibly well, if there had been a fire and there have been fires in Trellick Tower as well, and they, they've never had any major consequences. So I mean, just clever design, thinking more carefully about escape stairs, of the circulation of the building, can play alongside with the kind of responsible use of, of building materials and the Trellick Tower is also made of concrete. So that that actually, there's no cladding on that, that could go up in flames.

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  13:20

One of the things that I find quite interesting is when when we design buildings, and when we design fire safety, for a building, you know, we are dealing with multiple options, you know, stair completely on the outside, or putting it in the core. Again, designing a building made out of concrete is in some ways, much easier than designing a building made out of combustible materials like like timber. Nevertheless, there might be very good reasons, once we put all the variables of design to want to design a building, in a certain way. And under certain constraints, our fire safety has to be implemented appropriately. The problem is that if you take a building like Grenfell, and its refurbishment, then you put a system on that building that challenged every element of the fire safe design of that building, which was the cladding and and the moment that you put that element, you require an extremely competent professional to be able to make that building safe. If you want to design that building with combustible materials. It's not that it's impossible, it is just simply requires an enormous amount of knowledge. And an enormous amount of attention and time invested in making sure that is safe in a similar way, as you will do with with a timber structure. It will require an enormous amount of effort to actually do it. And I think it's that disconnect, you know, the things that we want to do to optimize the design and the complexity associated to the design itself. That creates a lot of these problems and we can never underestimate that. Fire Safety is a professional field that is highly motivated. disciplinary and of extreme complexity.

Christoph Lindner  15:03

Jose talking about fire safety as being a highly complex interdisciplinary field, and I've got a sense of what you might answer here, do we need more education in this space? You know, are we adequately equipping architects, engineers, designers, planners to be at the cutting edge of fire safety as a field?

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  15:22

If you take take civil engineering programs in the United Kingdom educational programs, you will have pretty much one in every university, the United Kingdom graduates less than 10 fire safety engineers per year, and basically are stemming all from probably one or two universities. Now, when you talk about the awareness, for example, that architects need to have a fire safety matters to be able to create a fire safe design, there is not a single program in the United Kingdom that makes architects competent enough to be aware of all the nuances that they should be aware of as, as architects. I mean, if there's anything that is going to come out from the ground for public inquiry is an absolute recognition of the extraordinary lack of competency in this field, at all levels, and in all sectors involved in the construction industry.

Theme music  16:14

Christoph Lindner  16:20

I'm wondering, Eva, if you could tell us a little bit more about the future projects that you were involved in which were responses to the Grenfell tower, and which my understanding is that they drew on the history and experiences of people who were living in and around Grenfell.

Dr Eva Branscome  16:40

Yeah, so I've been working with the SPID Theatre Company for almost 10 years now. And I primarily help as a workshop leader explaining the architectural history as part of the context for the performative site based enactments that this group puts on. And then when I was asked in September 2017, to run another series of workshops on the housing of North Kensington, it was very important to I mean, the the group that the SPID Theater Company sort of attracts is young people aged 13 to 25, from very mixed and diverse groups, and, and obviously, being located in North Kensington, a lot of the young people that had over the years already been joining these workshops came from the Grenfell Tower area directly around the Grenfell Tower, they saw the building burn, they lost friends, and was a real terrible trauma for them. And so my question as sort of a historian from the beginning wasn't something that I've been thinking about now for years is what do we do with Grenfell? What do we do with this kind of shell of, of the building that has not burned up because it's concrete, and is now been covered over with with a sort of a plastic sheet of plastic sheeting, but also what what will happen with the building? Should it be taken down? What will happen in its place? Will it stay an empty site? Or will something be instated as a memorial? What kind of a Memorial would this be? Would this be kind of a sculpture? Or could it be another Memorial Building? Could it be, for example, you know, another housing estate that is built with all of the fire safety and design things in place to give the honor back to this area and choice of really first class housing, social housing, you know, and so it was to work with young people to help them think through the options and so that they can take ownership of this trauma. And then also, the performance was then devised around this topic.

Christoph Lindner  18:46

I spoke to Nomi Israel who collaborated with Eva on this project, and I wanted to hear about her experience, and why she made the Burning Tower.

Naomi Israel  18:56

The Burning Tower was a play that was put on in the year after Grenfell, so that was 2017. And it was written by the creative director of SPID Theater, Helena Thompson. It was an interactive play in response to the Grenfell Fire. And it was inspired and created from interviews with people who live in West London, residents of estates, as well as other states in the in the London area as well. And it was performed at Kensal House and it was based on two characters called Sarah and Em, who were best friends and grew up in West London.

Christoph Lindner  19:41

I asked Naomi how the project got started.

Naomi Israel  19:44

It was originally came from Helena, we were discussing Grenfell and the coverage of it and how it was becoming just a sensationalized story that wasn't anything to do with it. What was the core of it, which was people, people lost their homes, their lives, their loved ones, their sense of safety, everything that we take for granted, was taken from them for no fault of their own. And many questions arose from that, mostly why and how. And that's how the Burning Tower came to be really. So it was essentially to inform and to also highlight that this, there's people at the heart of this and understand the many nuances that came to be from just understanding how social housing works as a whole, how it came to be, from how social housing as we know, it came to be, and then the series of events that led ultimately to Grenfell because it was just this powder keg that was just bound to happen. Sadly, just poor management and neglect, really.

Christoph Lindner  20:59

And what did you gain from making a project?

Naomi Israel  21:02

Um, for me, it, it gave a channel for my grief. So I'm gonna get a bit emosh, sorry. Oh, sorry. Just, it always catches me off guard when someone asked me that question.

Naomi Israel  21:19

But it allows me to channel my grief, and to essentially, give a voice to my friends who weren't here. It also allowed me to understand how it came about, because I've had many questions. Why and how was mainly one of them. And so I was - it enables me to educate myself on social housing, and what led up to it as well. So if I'm able to, to understand it's not just a bunch of people who like, like you know how it is, when you read the (which is foolish of me to do) when you read the comments, especially on the Daily Mail, oof! Daily Mail readers can be vicious. I read the comments and on one of the stories, and it was just - there was a few people there that were just like, oh, well, they're just a bunch of scroungers living in a nice area. And is like, really? No, these are working poor, they had a job. They were just like any other person living their life and just happened to live in a building that was not fit for purpose, and sadly lost their lives because of it. And I feel like the play enables, it basically shows that and it humanizes these people. Because through the two girls, because it shows just the inequality of it all like with Sarah's character being from social housing, and then the other character not. And just it shows also the insecurity that comes with it. Because ultimately when you're in social housing, you're ultimately at the mercy of the people who are governing that. And if they don't, if they have profits at the heart of everything they do, then your safety and your way of living isn't isn't factored in. Is is that comes far less important and way down the list of requirements for them ultimately is when it becomes about money and the bottom line, we get another Grenfell, sadly, and all the red tape they want to remove no keep the tape that please, it keeps people safe! Don't remove the tape, leave the tape alone!

Theme music  23:59

Christoph Lindner  24:07

So, Jose, I'm wondering, in your work taking a more global perspective on community responses to fire what sorts of examples you've come across of people communities responding to a fire disaster?

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  24:20

Yeah, that's a very interesting question. Because it's something that has evolved through the years. I mean, if you look at the history of fire safety, fire safety is, is a discipline if you want to call it that, that there has always been very much behind the need, you know, people design certain types of buildings, and we had to catch up. And if you look at the gaps, you know, between the need and the signs, you know, at some periods have been gaps over 100 years, where the knowledge you know, was really very much behind the actual reality of the built environment. We used to mem- sort of, I guess memorialize fires with plaques. You know, there was a plaque that said there was the Galley Fire here, you know, there was the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. And that was really all that was left, you know, from all these fires from all the people that died. And in some cases, for example, the first professional firefighters James Braidwood, and and he died in a fire in London in the mid 19th century. And you will find a statue to James Braidwood. So this was pretty much what it is and and what has happened as designs and the knowledge has caught up with the technology to some extent that we have made much more open statements. And the World Trade Center is, for example, one of those, you know, where effectively you know, you have a fire, and that fire in the end is one of the reasons why the building collapsed. And at that point, then you have a much more thought process. And there's a lot more information about how the building came down. And that in many ways serves the community to understand better, what the failures were, what the problems were. And I do think that in the case of Grenfell, you know, we are in a position in which we've managed to understand the sequence of failures in in a way such that I do think that if we are looking into creating a memorial, something that memorial needs to let people know why this happened. And and described in a way that actually is transparent. And people can understand all the reasons that led to this particular failure. So not just a plaque or a statue, but something that really shows very clearly that we understand the mistakes we made.

Christoph Lindner  26:43

So let's talk also about the future of fire. Because the question on my mind is how is climate change going to increase the danger of fire in cities in human societies around the world? So we're seeing more and more wildfires, I mean, London during the heatwave, there was a small outbreak of fires in a pattern that we've not really seen before. And if we look at other regions of the world, we're seeing wildfires just becoming more intense, more widespread, the fire season is extending longer in the year. And I'm wondering if we're headed towards a really, really big disaster on a more global scale, where accelerate to climate change, and the drying out of the planet is going to collide with the way that we design buildings and the lack of attention that we've paid to fire safety. What thoughts do you both have on that?

Dr Eva Branscome  27:44

I think sort of to think back historically, fire used to be a civic responsibility as well. And everybody understood that they were exposed to risk. And regardless of which kind of class they were, and if a fire happened, then everybody would be affected. And I mean, thinking also back historically on the Great Fire of London from 1666. And we still even talk about this today. And it really changed how building materials were used in London as well. But today, fire still something that affects the disadvantaged more also, because of overcrowding. And again, this kind of social issue and the building regulations have kind of taken over from from our collective civic concern, which I think is a really big problem. And the building regulations have in some way become our city and can be read through this. And regarding the Grenfell Fire and the ongoing inquiry, some argue that the regulations were cynically twisted by the local authority to shed the responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable in the city. And so I think, also these the Building Regulations really need to be thought of as well and to perhaps return to more of that fire is everybody's concern. Yes, like Christoph like you're saying, I mean, the fire is the summer in the UK. I mean, that's quite shocking to us. I think it is and makes us understand that fire can really happen to anybody and anywhere.

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  29:08

There is absolutely correct. I think, you know, fire used to be a civic responsibility. And as we understood better how to manage it. You know, we created building regulations that effectively transferred the problem from being an urban conflagration problem that was a civic responsibility. We created like separation distances between buildings. You know, we put regulations on the combustibility of external materials in such a way that we transfer the problem to the individual buildings. So the last 70 or 80 years of our Building Regulations now make the problem of fire safety, a building problem and not an urban conflagration. The reality is with global warming and climate change, it is clear that we have the potential to move back into the urban conflagration mode. Now, the problem is that that unfortunately, is accompanied by all sorts other variables. So one variable that is fundamental is land management as land prices go up, then we start misusing land. And that's what's happening California, you know, in southern Portugal in places like that, where effectively we start urbanizing areas, without really considering the natural propensity for fires, particularly as things get hotter or drier,

Christoph Lindner  30:23

it makes me wonder whether we're going to see as climate change continues, and as extreme weather gets more intense and frequent, are we going to see a new form of gentrification emerge around fire? So we've got, you know, eco gentrification, where, you know, being close to green space and healthy urban environments is driving gentrification. And we've got kind of climate gentrification around things like being safe from flooding, and those sorts of things. But are we going to see new patterns of urban development and exclusionary spatial social practices occurring around fire safety and being safe from urban wildfires? Maybe that's already happening,

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  31:13

Yes, it's already happening. I mean, I think places like California, or Australia, you already have a displacement of people away from areas that are perceived to be of greater fire hazard into areas that are perceived to be a lesser fire hazard. I think the unfortunate aspect as opposed to floods or other sort of drivers is that it is not very clear, then what the solution is, what is the safer place to be, because you are probably moving from a suburban environment that is much closer to, as you say, as sort of a more healthy space of living into moving into towers. And, you know, with the potential consequences of being in a building, like Grenfell Tower. And so it's not very clear for people exactly what is a safer environment when it comes to fires, or at least all that all those variables are still very fluid?

Christoph Lindner  32:17

Speaking of the future, if you look to the future, what is one thing that needs to change, so we can build better? What would you say, Eva,

Dr Eva Branscome  32:27

I think building better has a lot to do with respect for humanity. And as I've been sort of pointing out, today, but it also has a lot to do with respect for our planet, as we're growing increasingly aware of.

Christoph Lindner  32:43

And Jose, what are your thoughts on one thing we need to change so we can build better

Prof Jose Torero Cullen  32:47

When it comes to fire safety, if you want to have a fire safe environment, you have to make sure that those people who are delivering that fire safety have those attributes that come from the respect, you know, to their clients, to the people that they're delivering these buildings for, that comes with the, you know, acknowledging the need for a true understanding of the problem. And also having the talent and the inspiration that we expect for people doing an extraordinary design. And fire safety has to be delivered by extraordinary designers.

Christoph Lindner  33:22

Here are Naomi's thoughts on what we need to do to build better in the future.

Naomi Israel  33:28

I would say, listening, ultimately listening to people, look at how others have, say, for instance, if they're trying to build homes, look how other people have failed. And listen to the stories of the people living in said places that the person had failed. And also the people who have been successful. Listen, take notes of what they've done to be successful, too. Because I'm a firm believer of learning from others mistakes, because you know, as the saying goes, my father likes it says a lot, "my daughter in life, you must learn from the mistakes because you know, smart people learn from their own mistakes, wise people learn from the mistakes of others. So I feel that in order to build better, you must learn from the mistakes of the other people have made in the past, not implement them, and learn from them. And then also take the successes from others as well. And find a way to implement that too, because ultimately, it enriches people's lives because they have a nice and safe and comfortable place to live. And surely that's what everyone wants, right?

Christoph Lindner  34:37

So one thing in this episode that has inspired me and made me feel better about the future is that here at UCL at least we do have a lot of people thinking very actively about how to create fire safe environments, not only technologically from a design and engineering point of view for the buildings themselves, but also a fire safe environment from the point into view of a community and a society. So thank you very much for sharing all of that.

Christoph Lindner  35:08

You have been listening to Building Better the Bartlett podcast. This episode was presented by myself Christoph Lindner produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett communications team and edited by Cerys Bradley.

Christoph Lindner  35:23

It featured music from Blue Dot Sessions.

Christoph Lindner  35:26

I want to thank our guests for joining today's conversation. I was joined today by Professor Jose Torero, Cullen and Dr. Eva Branscome.

Christoph Lindner  35:38

And if you would like to hear more of these podcasts, please subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/building-better. And of course, you can follow us @theBartlett, UCL. This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's global faculty of the built environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone. We'll see you next month.

Return to see all episodes