Could Grenfell happen in Sweden? - Briab - Brand, Risk & Säkerhet


Could Grenfell happen in Sweden?

Not since World War II had London seen a deadlier disaster than the Grenfell Tower fire, where more than 70 people died. The fire occurred in a fairly common type of building in the U.K., a 24-storey apartment block. After it started in a fourth-floor apartment, the fire quickly spread along the façade. Because of deficiencies in the building’s fire protection, many people were not able to escape. It has been shown that the U.K. has serious shortcomings in its regulatory systems, and according to a new study, Sweden has similar problems.

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Comprehensive reviews have shown that the building’s fire protection had major defects. The façade was a hazardous design. It turns out that there are hundreds of buildings in the U.K. with similar façades.

Clear systemic defects

Although it is possible to identify clear defects in the Grenfell Tower’s fire protection, and in the actions that were taken during the night of the fire, we must look at the overall picture, if we are to see any general patterns. The Hackitt review pointed to serious systemic defects. Vague regulations, unclear allocation of responsibility, poorly defined roles for professionals, and a lack of traceability set the scene for the Grenfell fire. The building industry’s current system and culture allow for actors to take shortcuts that lead to construction defects, which don’t become visible until there is a fire. And this is when we get the answers. Does the building meet society’s requirements and the residents’ right to protection and safety? In the case of Grenfell, the answer is painfully clear.

Briab Meacham

Photo: Brian Meacham, PhD, PE, CEng, FIFireE, FSFPE, Managing Principal at Meacham Associates

Comparing England and Sweden

In October 2019, a research report was published by Brian Meacham and Michael Strömgren, comparing the Swedish and English systems. Based on the detailed study in England, a socio-technical analysis method was used to identify similarities and differences. The report is a sub-report in the HOLIFAS project, which was headed by Lund University. HOLIFAS aims to investigate Swedish fire protection regarding façades from a technical and a regulatory perspective. The project has received funding from Brandforsk (the Swedish Fire Research Board), as well as the participants’ own investments.

Read the full report: A Review of the English and Swedish Building Regulatory Systems for Fire Safety using a Socio-Technical System (STS) Based Methodology

The situation in Sweden

As early as 2017, a few months after the Grenfell fire, it became clear that there was a reason for concern in Sweden. A questionnaire by Briab showed that emergency services, fire protection consultants and other professionals knew about façade designs in Sweden that were similar to Grenfell. This was one of the reasons behind the comparison that was carried out in the HOLIFAS project, but there are more similarities in other aspects of construction.

Deregulated regulatory system

In both Sweden and England, function-based building regulations were implemented in the 1980s and 1990s, and much of the regulatory system has been deregulated. Both countries allow complex buildings and vulnerable solutions, e.g. tall buildings with just one evacuation route, flammable materials in external walls and optimized design with small safety margins. Opinions on product performance, i.e. allowing engineers to assess performance in the event of a fire, instead of actual testing, are also permitted in both countries.

Michael Strömgren, public affairs manager of Briab in Paris.

Photo: Michael Strömgren, Public Affairs Manager Briab

Worrying similarities

The results of the comparison are striking. England and Sweden have considerable similarities in regulatory systems, with high levels of freedom. Many of the deficiencies in England are also present in Sweden, including:

  • Insufficient clarity re roles and accountability
  • Insufficient understanding of expected performance (e.g. lack of criteria)
  • Insufficient structures for skills and qualifications
  • Insufficient checks and monitoring, mainly as a result of uncertainty regarding the responsible unit
  • Insufficient transparency, i.e. a lack of traceability and information requirements
  • Insufficient communication between actors at various levels

There are many measures at building sites that don’t give sufficient support or which aren’t observed in practice. For instance, inspection plans have been judged to be ineffective in practice, and fire protection documentation today gives insufficient traceability and clarity, if one is to, based on facts, assess a façade design’s component materials and inherent risks.

Traceability gives control

Control and quality assurance must improve, and it’s hard to see this happening if we don’t digitalize construction to a greater degree. Smart digital tools boost traceability and enable quality assurance from start to finish. Without traceability, we can’t demand accountability, and for this reason alone, digitalization is a necessity. England is making good progress on demanding digital traceability for fire protection, while in Sweden we are reducing traceability. That cannot be the way forward for a smarter, safer and more sustainable urban planning.


Take responsibility for the entire chain

Regulatory systems are being reviewed. We will get the results in December 2019 when the committee for updated building legislation presents its final report. Fire protection is a critical life safety aspect of buildings, and we have placed requirements on fire protection in buildings since the early Middle Ages. In the new Swedish legislation, it’s important that society places clear requirements on accidental loads such as fire.

The industry must itself push for cultural change; a good safety culture can make a difference. Construction defects are common today, and they cost 5 to 10 billion EUR per year in Sweden. We must be more professional and take more responsibility – only then can we affect the entire chain, from design to the building that is to stand for 50 years.


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