Saturday, June 24

Chalcots Estate

In 2008 I published a post about the Chalcots Estate towers scattered along our street in London.  At the time their drab and stained concrete exteriors were being re-clad in modern aesthetic thermal panelling.  The work was part of a comprehensive £66 million refurbishment that saw flats receive an extensive exterior upgrade and new internal fittings.
The estate consists of five towers spaced approximately 100 metres apart.  Four of the five towers rise an impressive 67 metres (219 feet) or 23 storeys. Their residents enjoy one of London’s most enviable skyline views; especially those living on the south side. Towards the south lucky residents enjoy sweeping views across Primrose Hill and Regents Park and on towards to the Palace of Westminster and the River Thames. 

Roll the clock forward nine years and the same buildings are back in the news this week.  Sadly the news isn’t good.  On the evening of 14 June a faulty fridge exploded on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower a similar housing estate tower near Ladbroke Grove.  Within minutes the fire, which should be contained within a single apartment, swept up the building’s 70 metre (220ft) exterior.  At least 79 people are believed to have died. Nine people are still in hospital, of which three are in critical care.

The speed at which the Grenfell Tower fire spread and the deadly destruction it’s caused has stunned the nation. The building had recently been re-clad in shiny new insulating panels identical to those used on the Chalcots Estate towers. Tragically, these panels have proven to be highly inflammable and thus wholly unsuitable for high-rise buildings.   

Since the fire testing on similar cladding across London and the UK has found hundreds of buildings harbour the same catastrophic fire risk. Yesterday Camden Council, the authority responsible for Chalcots Estate, ordered an evacuation of its towers. An urgent review had revealed numerous fire hazards resulting from their earlier refurbishment beyond the risk posed by deadly thermal cladding.

Residents living in 711 high rise homes were given just hours to gather their belongings and vacate every building.  Some are now temporarily housed in a nearby recreation centre while others have been placed in surrounding hotels.  Residents are expected to be homeless for several weeks as urgent repairs begin. Eventually the cladding on all five buildings will also be replaced.

Garry and I watched the news in awe as the streets from our old London neighbourhood were broadcast around the world.  For years while on our way to catch the Underground to and from work we’d walk past three of these towers and the local recreation centre. My daily commute also took me past the Grenfell Tower. 

The Grenfell Tower was a prominent landmark.  I use to marvel at the way my elevated train line curved around two sides of the building. The entire experience always struck me as one of those iconic Hollywood establishment shots that a director would use to develop a movie's opening scene.  

It’s hard to imagine that the same landmark is now a blackened, charred hulk.  I also find it hard to comprehend how such deadly material ever came to be used on high rise buildings across the UK. Tonight Garry and I are quietly thanking our good fortune that our Sydney apartment is clad in brick and painted concrete slabs.  Our hearts go out to all those affected by this month’s tragic events.  

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