An artist’s illustration of Project Milestone, an initiative in the Netherlands that will build five 3D-printed concrete homes in five years. Houben + Van Mierlo Architects / Image: Project Milestone
In the Dutch city of Eindhoven, engineers, contractors and architects have joined forces to create one of the world’s first 3D-printed commercial housing projects.
Dubbed Project Milestone, the initiative will use a huge 3D printer to fabricate five concrete houses in a wooded area near the city’s airport. Plans call for the first home, a three-bedroom dwelling of just over 1,000 square feet, to be completed in mid-2019 — though the entire initiative will take five years because the technology is still being refined.
“I feel excited,” van Gurp told NBC News MACH in an email. “We are reinventing some details in the real estate industry, and it feels to be at a start of a tech revolution in this industry.”
The robotic printer used to create the homes will follow architectural plans to put down layers of a special concrete mix. The first house’s roof and walls will be fabricated off-site and then brought to the building site for assembly. Once the technology is honed, it should be possible to print an entire home on site.
Renderings of the planned homes show futuristic-looking structures with curvilinear shapes and rectangular windows and doors. The designs are intended to show off the printer’s versatility, including the ability to create unusual shapes that are hard to make with conventional construction methods, van Gurp said.
But will 3D printing really revolutionize the construction industry?
Carlo Ratti, an architect and professor of urban technologies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told MACH in an email that while he believes digital fabrication will revolutionize construction, 3D printing in concrete is unlikely to be the key. “Still, it is positive that we are seeing a myriad [of] experiments in concrete printing — Project Milestone is one of them — that will be useful to perfect the technique,” he said.
The project certainly seems to have captured the attention of people looking for a place to live. Within a week of the renderings’ release, van Gurp told The Guardian, 20 families had applied to rent the first home.
New homes and low-rise apartment buildings across California would include solar panels under first-in-the-nation rules approved Wednesday by the California Energy Commission.
The rules now go to the state Building Standards Commission, where they were expected to easily win approval.
“This is groundbreaking,” said Pierre Delforge, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said the rules “will save energy, lower customer bills, keep homes comfortable in increasing heat waves and reduce pollution from California’s homes and buildings.”
The requirements, which would go into effect in 2020, could add more than $10,000 to the construction costs of new homes, the commission says. Some builders say the costs could be more than twice that.
But the commission and most builders agree that the costs should be more than made up in energy savings over the life of the solar energy system. And the plan has drawn generally positive reviews from the construction industry.
“Adoption of these standards represents a quantum leap in statewide buildings standards,” said Robert Raymer, technical director for the California Building Industry Association. “No other state in the nation will have anything close to this, and you can bet 49 other states will be watching to see what happens here in California.”
Some conservatives were not so enthusiastic, noting that the state already has some of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. A National Association of Realtors survey for the fourth quarter of 2017 listed four California markets among the nation’s five most expensive.
San Jose topped the list with a median price in excess of $1.2 million.
“The state’s housing crisis is real,” State Assemblyman Brian Dahle said. “California’s affordability problem is making it more and more difficult for people to afford to live here.”
The commission projects that more than 100,000 single-family homes and almost 50,000 multi-family buildings will be built across the state in 2020. Raymer acknowledged that the ambitious plan will probably roll in with some “hiccups.” Less than 20% of homes built in the state now include the panels.
The rules also address insulation and appliance efficiency. And they include efforts to increase battery storage and increase use of electricity over natural gas. Use of batteries to store solar energy will be crucial to cost savings, Raymer said.
“Battery storage technology will allow the homeowner to capture the cheaper electricity … the middle of the day,” Raymer said. “And keep that power on-site for use in the early evening hours when electrical rates go way up.”
The rules apply to building permits issued after Jan. 1, 2020. There are some exceptions to the solar panel rule, such as homes that would be shaded by trees or buildings or when roofs are too small for the panels.
Abigail Ross, CEO of the national Solar Energy Industries Association, said solar prices in the state have fallen by more than 50% in the last five years.
“Other states may not be ready for this step yet,” she said. “But this is a precedent-setting policy, one that will bring enormous benefits and cost savings to consumers.”
For more than a decade, the commission has been operating under goals that would provide “net-zero” energy for new residents by 2020 and for new commercial buildings a decade later.
Southern California home prices jumped 10.2% in February compared with a year earlier, while sales remained nearly flat as the region and the state grapple with a shortage of homes for sale.
The median price across the six-county region clocked in at $506,750 last month, real estate data firm CoreLogic said Wednesday. That’s up from a revised $495,500 in January but below an all-time high of $509,500 in December.
It’s not unusual for the median — the point at which half the homes sold for more and half for less — to fluctuate month to month, and prices are up solidly from last year. In Los Angeles County, the median hit a new all-time high of $580,000 in February, up 10.5% from a year earlier.
Elsewhere in Southern California, median prices increased as well.
Orange County: The price tied a record of $710,000 and was 10.1% higher than a year earlier.
Riverside County: The price rose 8.7% to $375,000.
San Bernardino County: The price leaped 16% to $336,500.
San Diego County: The price rose 8.7% to $535,000.
Ventura County: The price rose 6.7% to $555,000.
A growing economy and a shortage of homes listed for sale are helping drive the increases. That’s spurring a political debate about whether state government should restrict local authorities’ ability to limit housing construction.
California, largely because of its housing costs, has the nation’s highest poverty rate after accounting for cost of living. Many cities, including Los Angeles, have proved too expensive for some low-income residents, causing them to move away or end up in tents that line streets.
According to online real estate brokerage Redfin, there was less than a four-month supply of homes for sale in every Southern California county last month. That means there would be no properties left at the end of that time frame if no new listings popped up and sales continued at their current pace.
Real estate agents generally consider a six-month supply of homes to be a balanced market, in which neither sellers nor buyers have an advantage. Lower supply gives an edge to the sellers. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, inventory stood at 3.1 months.
Across the region, sales rose 0.6% in February compared with a year earlier.
Exacerbating the supply shortage, rock-bottom mortgage rates have supercharged the market in recent years, enabling borrowers to afford more than they otherwise could as long as they can scrape together a down payment.
Rates remain low historically, although they have shot up this year because investors fear inflation will pick up.
That uptick essentially makes homes more expensive. But some real estate agents say that it hasn’t hurt demand yet — instead, they say, it’s is spurring families to buy, for fear that rates will just keep rising.
The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.44% last week, up from 3.95% at the beginning of the year, according to Freddie Mac.
The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 6.3% annual gain in December, up from 6.1% in the previous month. The 10-City Composite annual increase came in at 6.0%, no change from the previous month. The 20-City Composite posted a 6.3% year-over-year gain, down from 6.4% in the previous month.
Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Francisco reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities. In December, Seattle led the way with a 12.7% year-over-year price increase, followed by Las Vegas with an 11.1% increase, and San Francisco with a 9.2% increase. Nine cities reported greater price increases in the year ending December 2017 versus the year ending November 2017
Before seasonal adjustment, the National Index posted a month-over-month gain of 0.2% in December. The 10-City and 20-City Composites both reported increases of 0.2%. After seasonal adjustment, the National Index recorded a 0.7% month-over-month increase in December. The 10-City and 20-City Composites both posted 0.6% month-over-month increases. Twelve of the 20 cities reported increases in December before seasonal adjustment, while all 20 cities reported increases after seasonal adjustment.
“The rise in home prices should be causing the same nervous wonder aimed at the stock market after its recent bout of volatility,” says David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Across the 20 cities covered by S&P Corelogic Case Shiller Home Price Indices, the average increase from the financial crisis low is 62%; over the same period, inflation was 12.4%. None of the cities covered in this release saw real, inflation-adjusted prices fall in 2017. The National Index, which reached its low point in 2012, is up 38% in six years after adjusting for inflation, a real annual gain of 5.3%. The National Index’s average annual real gain from 1976 to 2017 was 1.3%. Even considering the recovery from the financial crisis, we are experiencing a boom in home prices.
“Within the last few months, there are beginning to be some signs that gains in housing may be leveling off. Sales of existing homes fell in December and January after seasonal adjustment and are now as low as any month in 2017. Pending sales of existing homes are roughly flat over the last several months. New home sales appear to be following the same trend as existing home sales. While the price increases do not suggest any weakening of demand, mortgage rates rose from 4% to 4.4% since the start of the year. It is too early to tell if the housing recovery is slowing. If it is, some moderation in price gains could be seen later this year.”
Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
Thanks to modern heating systems, we can enjoy the cozy picturesqueness of a fireplace without depending on it to keep our homes warm. But that wasn’t the case in 18th- and early 19th-century America.
“Up through about 1800, the wood-burning fireplace—very popular with English settlers—was the primary means of heating a home,” explains Sean Adams, professor of history at the University of Florida and author of Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century. “The problem was that winters in America can be much harsher than in England. The weather quickly exposed how inefficient fireplaces are at heating a room.”
The majority of the heat in a fireplace goes up and out of the flue. What little heat does make its way into the room gets concentrated directly in front of the firebox, leaving the rest of the room quite cold.
In 1741, Benjamin Franklin sought to improve the efficiency of the fireplace. He introduced a cast-iron insert for the firebox—called the “Franklin Stove”—in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, volume 2. While it didn’t fundamentally change the design of a fireplace, it addressed his theory about heat.
“Franklin believed heat to be like liquid—he was trying to keep the heat in the room as long as possible, or else it would rush out of the room,” explains Adams.
The Franklin Stove had a series of baffles, or channels, within the stove to direct the flow of air, to keep as much of the heat circulating in the firebox and flowing out into the room as possible. However, the design had problems.
“The stove had to be very tight,” explains Adams. “If there were any leaks, smoke leaked out into the room. Wind would also blow the smoke back into the room. It wasn’t considered a real success.”
Toward the end of the 19th century, the inventor Count Rumford devised a fireplace designed along a set of proportions so it could be built on a variety of scales.
“In the fireplaces I recommend,” Count Rumford writes in a 1796 essay, “the back [of the fireplace] is only about one third of the width of the opening of the fireplace in front, and consequently that the two sides or covings of the fireplaces…are inclined to [the front opening] at an angle of about 135 degrees.”
The Rumford fireplace efficiently burned wood while its characteristically shallow firebox reflected as much heat as possible out into the room as possible. The handy design of the Rumford gained a strong following.
Thomas Jefferson installed eight of them at his country house Monticello. Rumford fireplaces became so mainstream that Henry David Thoreau wrote about them in Walden as a basic quality of the home, alongside copper pipes, plaster walls, and Venetian blinds.
By the 1820s and 1830s, Adams explains, coal was quickly becoming a dominating fuel type. Stoves that could burn either wood or coal—the type being pushed was Anthracite, or “hard” coal—became popular.
Iron stoves were not new technology. While English settlers brought fireplaces, German settlers had iron stoves that did a good job of heating a space.
But what was new was the type of fuel: coal. Adams explains that since coal was so different from the familiar fuel type of wood, it took a little while to gain popularity.
“Coal was first marketed in a similar way to how some new technology is marketed today,” says Adams. “You needed early investors willing to take the risk. It was billed at ‘the fuel of the fashionable,’ which would revolutionize home heating.”
To match, coal stoves became highly decorative, featuring intricate ironwork and decorative finials to make them just as desirable as they were utilitarian.
Coal became mainstream in post-Civil War America. Wealthier families might have burned coal in basement furnaces—with specific rooms dedicated for coal storage—while poorer families might have used little stoves in individual rooms in their home.
The architecture of the home also changed as heating technologies shifted. While Colonial houses of the 18th century needed big chimneys to support multiple fireplaces, houses built in the later half of the 19th century only needed ventilation space for stove pipes. That translated into skinnier chimneys.
Inside, mantlepieces sometimes remained as a backdrop for the stoves. Even though they were technically no longer needed, they continued to act as a focal point in a room.
Also coming into play in the 19th century was steam heating, which first appeared in the 1850s but gained popularity in the 1880s. Adams explains that this is just another form of coal heating, as coal would be used to heat the water that turns into steam.
Steam heating was first used in institutional buildings like hospitals but then moved to residences. One of the most elaborate examples of a steam-heating network in the 19th century was at Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilt-owned mansion in Asheville, North Carolina.
Kiernan explains that the subbasement of Biltmore, which was completed in 1895, had three boilers capable of holding 20,000 gallons of water each. Those boilers created steam that circulated to radiators in a network of shafts around the house, a system that seems simple in theory but quickly intensifies when one realizes that the network had to heat 250 rooms.
“Of course—this heating system had help from 65 fireplaces, some more utilitarian, others wildly elaborate,” Kiernan adds.
Heating the largest private home in America was no small feat: In The Last Castle, Kiernan reports that 25 tons of coal were burned in two weeks during the winter of 1900. To prepare for the winter of 1904, the Vanderbilts placed a coal order for 500 tons to be shipped and ready.
Regardless of how elaborate or rudimentary the heating system of choice was in the 19th century, something that seemed to connect all methods, whether it be wood or coal, was a reliance on oneself to light the fire and supply the heat. Something that changes in the 20th century, when national grids of electricity and gas fundamentally changed how we heat our homes—but that’s a different story.
“The hearth becomes industrialized throughout the 1800s, but people still wanted to make the fire themselves,” theorizes Adams. “Now, we’re very comfortable with the idea that we can flip a switch to turn the heat on, but that wasn’t the case a century ago. They were close enough to that era of open, roaring fireplaces that people wanted to control their own heat!”
NAR is OPPOSED to the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” tax reform plan released by the Senate Finance Committee, and its companion legislation H.R. 1 passed by the House of Representatives on November 16.
For more than a century American tax policy has recognized the value of homeownership to American middle-class wealth creation, strong and stable communities, and as a driver of our nation’s economy. Homeownership is not a special interest, it is our common interest, yet Congress would place the American Dream further out of reach for millions of Americans at a time when our homeownership rate is at a 50 year low. In short, the Tax Cut and Jobs Act is a serious step in the wrong direction.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Senate Tax Reform Plan
This plan, like its companion in the House of Representatives, is a direct threat to homeowners and consumers. Not only will millions of homeowners not benefit from the proposal, many will get a tax increase. Additionally, homeowners could lose substantial equity from the more than 10 percent drop in home values likely to result if the bill is enacted.
The companion legislation unveiled by the Senate includes changes to the exemption on Capital Gains Tax from the sale of a primary residence, elimination of the deduction for state and local taxes, elimination of the Home Equity Loan Interest Deduction, restricts the deduction for moving expenses to only active duty military, restricts the deduction for personal casualty losses to Presidentially declared disasters. All this from a bill that is supposed to improve the current system.
H.R. 1, The Tax Cut and Jobs Act
As currently written, H.R. 1(link is external) would eviscerate the current-law tax incentives for purchasing and owning a home for all but a small percentage of Americans (6 percent, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation).
By nearly doubling the standard deduction while eliminating most itemized deductions, the bill would destroy or at least cripple the incentive value of the mortgage interest deduction (MID) for the great majority of current and prospective homebuyers, and sap the incentive value of the property tax deduction for millions more.
The direct result of these changes would be a plunge in home values across America in excess of 10 percent, and likely more in higher cost areas. Provisions in the bill that limit the deductibility of interest on new mortgage loans to $500,000, cap property tax deductibility at $10,000 for those who can still itemize, eliminate the deduction altogether for second homes, and restrict the utility of the exclusion of gain on the sale of a home would exacerbate the effect. Many of these changes are not indexed for inflation, increasing the pain on more and more homeowners over time.
NAR’s research indicates that the average first-time homebuyer makes a down payment of less than 10 percent, meaning that millions of owners of recently-purchased homes would go “under water” on their mortgages, and they would owe more than the homes are worth. This, of course, could lead to devastating results for families that must sell, as well as damage neighborhoods, communities, and the economy itself.
The hard-won equity of millions more homeowners could be ravaged as well. Parents planning to use the value of their homes to help finance the higher education costs of children could find their resources shot, and baby-boomer homeowners nearing retirement who hoped to use their home’s equity to pay for a portion of their retirement may have to delay or revise their plans.
The bottom line is that for tax purposes, owning a home would make less financial sense than renting for the great majority of Americans. This would reverse more than a century of pro-homeownership tax policy and result in untold negative economic and social implications.
While this tax reform legislation is being promoted as a tax cut for middle-income families, the reality is that millions of middle-class homeowners would immediately face tax increases, while those who see a tax cut will see significantly less tax relief if they own a home than if they are a renter.
H.R. 1 uses a “typical family of four” making $59,000 a year as an example of middle-class tax relief delivered by the bill. The family is renting a home, based on the facts presented, and is to receive a tax cut of $1,182 the first year after enactment. If the family owned a home with a typical mortgage for their income level, the tax savings would be 36 percent less.
This may seem a minor difference to some, but the difference grows quickly as income rises. Consider again this same “typical family of four,” but this time assign them a median family income of $73,000 rather than the median household income of $59,000 as per the Ways and Means example. In this case, the renting family receives a tax cut of $1,478 under the bill, but the home owning family would get a refund less than half what the same family would receive as renters.
Finally, looking at this same family, but with an income of $120,000, as renters, they would receive a tax cut under H.R. 1 of $3,408. However, as homeowners with a typical mortgage in a typical average-cost state, they would have a tax increase of $226. This hidden “homeowners penalty” would be an astounding $3,634. Further, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act not only eliminates the current tax advantages of homeownership, and thus discourages homeownership for many, it would actually encourage renting by allowing investors in residential property to continue to be eligible for full deductions of all interest and property taxes.
To make things worse, the relatively small tax cuts that many middle-class homeowners receive from this proposal would vanish after just a few years. Based on the Congressional Budget Office forecast of inflation, income growth, and 10-year Treasury rates, coupled with the expiration of the family flexibility credit, most middle class families would see their modest tax cuts transform to tax increases under the plan compared to current law after five years. NAR does not believe vanishing tax cuts, coupled with vanishing home equity, is a formula for growing our economy.
Homeowners currently pay 83 percent of all Federal income taxes. This percentage is likely to increase significantly under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. At the same time, long standing federal tax policy that recognizes the importance of homeownership to our nation would be eliminated for all but a fortunate few. NAR cannot support these changes because REALTORS® know that tax reform can be better than this. A tax reform bill that is projected to add $1.5 trillion to our national debt should produce very few losers. Unfortunately, it appears America’s homeowners and owner-occupied real estate in general are by far the largest losers in this legislation.
Beatlemaniacs may be interested to know that a former home of John Lennon’s has come on the market in Surrey, in South East England. Known as Kenwood, the six-bedroom manse was built in 1913 in a mock-Tudor style and is located on St. Georges Hill estate.
The musician bought the home in 1964 for £20,000, enlisting Kenneth Partridge to design the interiors. Lennon lived there with his first wife Cynthia until 1968, when the couple divorced.
The 1.5-acre property has been significantly updated since then, but it’s still an impressive residence that, in addition to the six bedrooms, features six expansive reception rooms, six bathrooms, a huge kitchen, and beautifully landscaped grounds.
Period details like wood paneling, grand fireplaces, window seats, and exposed beams combine with contemporary finishes to create a bright, accommodating home ideal for entertaining.
Set on a “superb plateau position,” Kenwood enjoys uninterrupted views of the Surrey Hills, while mature gardens, fountains, and split-level lawn terraces offer additional outdoor living opportunities. A secondary building includes an indoor swimming pool with a shower, changing facilities, and a sauna,
All you need is £8.9 million, or about $11.7 million, to make it yours. You can’t buy love, but you can certainly get yourself a piece of rock-royalty real estate. Who knows, maybe Lennon’s musical genius will rub off on the lucky owner.
London house prices are falling at their fastest pace since the financial crisis, confirming the British capital as the worst-performing part of a slowing market.
Early data point to home values in London declining 2.7 percent in the year through September, the most since 2009, according to Acadata and LSL property Services. A 0.7 percent fall in August marked the first negative reading since 2011 as sellers in some of the city’s most expensive boroughs, including Westminster, Wandsworth and Hammersmith, were forced to cut prices.
Outside of London and southeast England, the market appeared more buoyant, with prices on average rising in September by more than 3 percent on the year, though the pace of growth has been slowing for months.
In London, values fell for a sixth consecutive month. If the provisional estimates are confirmed, the average price of a home in the capital was less than 582,000 ($773,000), the lowest since the end of 2015.
The downbeat picture was confirmed in a separate report from Rightmove Plc, which said asking prices in London fell an annual 2.5 percent in October. While they rose 3.1 percent on the month, driven by owners of more expensive properties, achieving these prices is far from assured as buyers now have more choice, according to Rightmove director Miles Shipside.
Values at the top end of the market have come under the most pressure, with prices falling in almost half of London’s 33 boroughs in the year through August, according to Acadata. It illustrates the toll being taken by Brexit uncertainty, higher property taxes for landlords and the prospect of the Bank of England raising interest rates for the first time in a decade.
The fall will be welcome news to people struggling to get onto the housing ladder after years of rocketing prices. Affordability is a hot political topic in the U.K. and Prime Minister Theresa May’s government announced an extension of its “Help to Buy” mortgage-assistance program earlier this month, though economists questioned its effectiveness in London where house prices are still double the national average and 10 times the earnings of a first-time buyer.
“It’s stimulative on the margin in London but not enough to make much difference there,” said Philip Rush, an economist at Heteronomics. “It’s more supportive elsewhere in the country where prices are lower, but also growing better anyway.”
Sales of new single-family houses in the United States shrank 3.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 560 thousand in August of 2017 from an upwardly revised 580 thousand in July. It is a new low so far this year, well below market expectations of 588 thousand. Sales fell the most in the South, partly due to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. New Home Sales in the United States averaged 650.80 Thousand from 1963 until 2017, reaching an all time high of 1389 Thousand in July of 2005 and a record low of 270 Thousand in February of 2011.
US New Home Sales Fall for 2nd Month
Sales of new single-family houses in the United States shrank 3.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 560 thousand in August of 2017 from an upwardly revised 580 thousand in July. It is a new low so far this year, well below market expectations of 588 thousand. Sales fell the most in the South, partly due to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Sales fell in the Northeast (-2.6 percent to 38 thousand), the West (-2.7 percent to 146 thousand) and the South (-4.7 percent to 307 thousand) and were unchanged at 69 thousand in the Midwest. The counties in Texas and Florida accounted for about 14 percent of US single-family housing units authorized by permits in 2016, and about 27 percent of single-family housing units authorized in the South region. In August, information on the sales status was collected for only 65 percent of cases in Texas and Florida counties, compared to a normal 95 percent rate.
The median sales price of new houses sold was $300,200, above $298,900 a year earlier. The average sales price was $368,100, also higher than $355,100 in August of 2016.
The stock of new houses for sale went up to 284 thousand from 274 thousand in July, hitting the highest level since May of 2009. This represents a supply of 6.1 months at the current sales rate.
Year-on-year, new home sales shrank 1.2 percent.
Figures for July were revised up to 580 thousand from an initial estimate of 571 thousand. The June figure was revised down to 614 thousand from 630 thousand.
LONDON — The doorbell woke Yassin Adam just before 1 a.m. A neighbor was frantically alerting others on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower about a fire in his apartment. “My fridge blew up,” the man shouted.
Residents of Grenfell Tower had complained for years that the 24-story public housing block invited catastrophe. It lacked fire alarms, sprinklers and a fire escape. It had only a single staircase. And there were concerns about a new aluminum facade that was supposed to improve the building — but was now whisking the flames skyward.
The facade, Mr. Adam said, “burned like a fire that you pour petrol on.”
The incineration of Grenfell Tower on June 14, the deadliest fire in Britain in more than a century, is now a national tragedy. The London police on Friday blamed flammable materials used in the facade for the spread of the blaze and said the investigation could bring charges of manslaughter. Hundreds of families were evacuated from five high-rises that posed similar risks.
Flames consumed the tower so quickly that arriving firefighters wondered if they could even get inside. People trapped on the higher floors screamed for their lives through broken windows. At least 79 people died, a toll that is expected to rise as more bodies are recovered. Survivors have charged that the facade was installed to beautify their housing project for the benefit of wealthy neighbors.
A formal government inquiry into the fire has just begun. But interviews with tenants, industry executives and fire safety engineers point to a gross failure of government oversight, a refusal to heed warnings from inside Britain and around the world and a drive by successive governments from both major political parties to free businesses from the burden of safety regulations.
Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.
The facade, installed last year at Grenfell Tower, in panels known as cladding and sold as Reynobond PE, consisted of two sheets of aluminum that sandwich a combustible core of polyethylene. It was produced by the American manufacturing giant Alcoa, which was renamed Arconic after a reorganization last year.
Arconic has marketed the flammable facades in Britain for years, even as it has adjusted its pitch elsewhere. In other European countries, Arconic’s sales materials explicitly instructed that “as soon as the building is higher than the firefighters’ ladders, it has to be conceived with an incombustible material.” An Arconic website for British customers said only that such use “depends on local building codes.”
For years, members of Parliament had written letters requesting new restrictions on cladding, especially as the same flammable facades were blamed for fires in Britain, France, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and elsewhere. Yet British authorities resisted new rules. A top building regulator explained to a coroner in 2013 that requiring only noncombustible exteriors in residential towers “limits your choice of materials quite significantly.”
Fire safety experts said the blaze at Grenfell Tower was a catastrophe that could have been avoided, if warnings had been heeded.
“How could that happen in our country at this time?” asked Dennis Davis, a former firefighter who is vice chairman of the nonprofit Fire Sector Federation.
Mr. Adam, 44, had seen posters hung by the management company telling tenants to shut their doors and stay inside in the event of a fire. But Mr. Adam, his wife, his daughter and his pregnant sister ignored the instructions and ran.
“Anyone who listened to the fire brigade and stayed where they are,” Mr. Adam said in an interview the next day, “they lost their lives.”
‘How Is That Possible?’
The first call to the London Fire Brigade came at 12:45 a.m., according to an official statement. Six minutes later, as the first firefighters reached the scene, brigade veterans struggled to fathom the speed of the blaze.
“That is not a real block with people in it!” one firefighter exclaimed, his astonishment captured in a video that later was shown on the BBC and Sky News and was shot inside his vehicle as it sped toward the building.
Other firefighters in the vehicle were heard gasping in horror.
“There are kids in there,” one said.
“How is that possible?”
“It has jumped all the way along the flats — look!”
How “are we going to get into that?” another asked, using an expletive.
Flames in an ordinary fire burst out of windows, moving from the inside out. Grenfell Tower burned in reverse, moving inward from the building’s exterior. The flames quickly tore upward in streaks through the facade, filling apartments with toxic black smoke. Torrents of orange and red branched out of the first streaks and shot upward. The flames encased the building in a cylinder of fire.
“I have never seen such a phenomenal fire, a building engulfed top to bottom in flames,” Dany Cotton, the London fire commissioner, said later that day. More than 200 firefighters battled the blaze. They brought 40 fire engines and other vehicles.
“Committing hundreds of my firefighters into a building that at points looked like it couldn’t possibly stand up due to the level of fire — I actually felt physically sick with anxiety about what was happening,” Ms. Cotton added. But the firefighters went in.
The building they entered was built in 1974 in an architectural style known as Brutalism, and the original concrete structure, built without cladding, would have contained the fire in one apartment long enough for firefighters to prevent it from spreading very far. But the building’s floor plan gives a picture of what happened. Refrigerators in most apartments appear to have been positioned against an exterior wall, next to a window and just a few inches from the cladding installed in the renovation.
When the refrigerator on the fourth floor burst into flames, the fire ignited the flammable cladding and shot up the side of the building. The London police confirmed that on Friday and identified the refrigerator brand as Hotpoint. But experts who saw footage of the blaze had known the culprit at once. “You can tell immediately it’s the cladding,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The first well-known use of aluminum cladding on a high-rise was on the Alcoa Building, in Pittsburgh, erected as the manufacturer’s headquarters. Makers of cladding promoted it as both aesthetically striking and energy-efficient, because the aluminum surface reflects back heat and light. Demand for cladding surged with rising fuel costs and concerns about global warming, and over time, producers began selling it in a thin “sandwich” design: Two sheets of aluminum around a core made of flammable plastics like polyethylene.
The cladding is typically paired with a much thicker layer of foam insulation against the building’s exterior wall, as was the case at Grenfell Tower. Then the cladding may be affixed to the wall with metal studs, leaving a narrow gap between the cladding and the insulation.
But by 1998, regulators in the United States — where deaths from fires are historically more common than in Britain or Western Europe — began requiring real-world simulations to test any materials to be used in buildings taller than a firefighter’s two-story ladder. “The U.S. codes say you have to test your assembly exactly the way you install it in a building,” said Robert Solomon, an engineer at the National Fire Protection Association, which is funded in part by insurance companies and drafts model codes followed in the United States and around the world.
No aluminum cladding made with pure polyethylene — the type used at Grenfell Tower — has ever passed the test, experts in the United States say. The aluminum sandwiching always failed in the heat of a fire, exposing the flammable filling. And the air gap between the cladding and the insulation could act as a chimney, intensifying the fire and sucking flames up the side of a building. Attempts to install inflammable barriers at vertical and horizontal intervals were ineffective in practice.
As a result, American building codes have effectively banned flammable cladding in high-rises for nearly two decades. The codes also require many additional safeguards, especially in new buildings or major renovations: automatic sprinkler systems, fire alarms, loudspeakers to provide emergency instructions, pressurized stairways designed to keep smoke out and multiple stairways or fire escapes.
And partly because of the influence of American architects, many territories around the world follow the American example. But not Britain.
Safety vs. Cost
British schoolchildren study the Great Fire of London, in 1666, the way American pupils might learn about the Boston Tea Party or the first Thanksgiving. But the legacy of the fire is also still felt in Britain’s building codes, experts say. London’s original great fire leapt across wooden buildings. And since then, British building codes have focused primarily on the principle of stopping the spread of flames between buildings or, within larger structures, between units.
With fire prevention in Britain, “you put all your eggs in one basket,” said Edwin Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich. And for decades, this was fairly effective. Britain has long reported far fewer deaths from fires relative to population than the United States, and typically, fewer than 350 residents die each year in fires (compared with more than 3,000 in the United States).
But as early as 1999, after a fire in Irvine, Scotland, British fire safety engineers warned Parliament that the advent of flammable cladding had opened a dangerous loophole in the regulations. The Irvine fire saw flames leap up panels at Garnock Court, a 14-story public housing block. One resident died, four others were injured and a parliamentary committee investigated the causes.
“To a certain extent, we are hoisted by the petard of what happened here in 1666, the Great Fire of London, and we look at fire as a horizontal problem, with a fire in one building affecting the exterior of another building,” Glynton Evans, a fire safety adviser to the firefighters’ union, said to Parliament. “The problem with cladding is that it will, if it is able, spread fire, and it will spread it vertically.”
The firefighters and engineers warned Parliament that British codes required only that the aluminum used in cladding resist ignition, even though the heat of a fire would breach the surface and expose the flammable material inside. Nor did the British rules require a test to evaluate risks in real-world conditions.
“If the cladding cannot resist the spread of flame across the surface, then it will vertically envelop the building,” Mr. Evans warned, in testimony that now seems prophetic. “In other words, the fire will spread to the outside of the building, and it will go vertically.” Many other fire safety experts would repeat those concerns in the following years.
But manufacturers argued against new tests or rules. Using fire-resistant materials was more expensive, a cost that industry advocates opposed.
“Any changes to the facade to satisfy a single requirement such as fire performance will impinge on all other aspects of the wall’s performance as well as its cost,” Stephen Ledbetter, the director of the Center for Window and Cladding Technology, an industry group, wrote in testimony to Parliament
“Fire resistant walls,” he added, “are not economically viable for the prevention of fire spread from floor to floor of a building,” and “we run the risk of using a test method because it exists, not because it delivers real benefits to building owners or users.” (In an interview last week, Mr. Ledbetter said his group had updated its position earlier this year to warn against the type of cladding used at Grenfell Tower.)
Business-friendly governments in Britain — first under Labor and then under the Conservatives — campaigned to pare back regulations. A 2005 law known as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order ended a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire codes, and shifted instead to a system of self-policing. Governments adopted slogans calling for the elimination of at least one regulation for each new one that was imposed, and the authorities in charge of fire safety took this to heart.
“If you think more fire protection would be good for U.K. business, then you should be making the case to the business community, not the government,” Brian Martin, the top civil servant in charge of drafting building-safety guidelines, told an industry conference in 2011, quoting the fire minister then, Bob Neill. (“Should we be looking to regulate further? ‘No’ would be my answer,’” Mr. Neill added.)
Mr. Martin, a former surveyor for large-scale commercial projects like the Canary Wharf, told his audience to expect few new regulations because the prime minister at the time, David Cameron, wanted to greatly reduce the burden on industry, according to a report by the conference organizers.
Two years later, in 2013, a coroner questioned Mr. Martin about the application of building regulations in the case of another London fire, which killed six people and injured 15 others at a public housing complex called Lakanal House. Mr. Martin defended the existing regulations, including the lack of a requirement for meaningful fire resistance in the paneling on the outside of an apartment tower.
A questioner told him that the public might be “horrified” to learn that the rules permitted the use of paneling that could spread flames up the side of a building in as little as four-and-a-half minutes. “I can’t predict what the public would think,” Mr. Martin replied, “but that is the situation.”
Moving to a requirement that the exterior of a building be “noncombustible,” Mr. Martin said, “limits your choice of materials quite significantly.”
After the coroner’s report, a cross-party coalition of members of Parliament petitioned government ministers to reform the regulations, including adding automatic sprinklers and revisiting the standards for cladding. “Today’s buildings have a much higher content of readily available combustible material,” the group wrote in a letter sent in December 2015 that specifically cited the risk of chemicals in “cladding.”
“This fire hazard results in many fires because adequate recommendations to developers simply do not exist. There is little or no requirement to mitigate external fire spread,” added the letter, which was first reported last week by the BBC.
In 2014, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, an organization in the United States, counted 20 major high-rise fires involving cladding. In at least a half-dozen — in France, Dubai, South Korea, the United States and elsewhere — the same type of panels installed at Grenfell Tower caught fire. A 2014 fire in Melbourne, Australia, resulted in multiple investigations into the dangers of combustible cladding. Another fire broke out in Dubai, around a 60-story skyscraper, on New Year’s Eve of 2015, and yet another, around a 70-story skyscraper there, this April.
But in Britain, still no changes were made. “The construction industry appears to be stronger and more powerful than the safety lobby,” said Ronnie King, a former fire chief who advises the parliamentary fire safety group. “Their voice is louder.”
‘Pray for Us’
As recently as March, a tenant blogger, writing on behalf of what he called the Grenfell Action Group, predicted a “serious and catastrophic incident,” adding, “The phrase ‘an accident waiting to happen’ springs readily to mind.”
For many tenants, an object of scorn was Grenfell Tower’s quasi-governmental owner, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization. It was created under legislation seeking to give public housing residents more say in running their buildings, and its board is made up of a mix of tenants, representatives of local government and independent directors. But Kensington and Chelsea is the largest tenant management organization in England, a sprawling anomaly supervising roughly 10,000 properties, more than 30 times the average for such entities. Tenants came to see it as just another landlord.
The organization had promised residents of Grenfell Tower that the renovation last year would improve both insulation and fire safety. Board minutes indicate that it worked closely with the London Fire Brigade throughout the process, and local firefighters attended a briefing afterward “where the contractor demonstrated the fire safety features.” During a board meeting last year, the organization even said it would “extend fire safety approach adopted at Grenfell Tower to all major works projects.”
But the principal contractor, the Rydon Group, based in East Sussex, England, assigned the facade work to a specialist firm that was struggling financially during the project. The firm, Harley Curtain Wall, went out of business in 2015 and transferred its assets to a successor, Harley Facades.
Another subcontractor, Omnis Exteriors, said on Friday that it had not been told that the flammable Reynobond cladding was going to be combined with flammable interior insulation. That was a problem, the firm said in a statement, adding that the cladding “should only be used in conjunction with a noncombustible material.”
The cladding itself was produced by Arconic, an industry titan whose chief executive recently stepped down after an unusual public battle with an activist shareholder. Arconic sells a flammable polyethylene version of its Reynobond cladding and a more expensive, fire-resistant version.
In a brochure aimed at customers in other European countries, the company cautions that the polyethylene Reynobond should not be used in buildings taller than 10 meters, or about 33 feet, consistent with regulations in the United States and elsewhere. “Fire is a key issue when it comes to buildings,” the brochure explains. “Especially when it comes to facades and roofs, the fire can spread extremely rapidly.”
A diagram shows flames leaping up the side of a building. “As soon as the building is higher than the firefighters’ ladders, it has to be conceived with an incombustible material,” a caption says.
But the marketing materials on Arconic’s British website are opaque on the issue.
“Q: When do I need Fire Retardant (FR) versus Polyethylene (PR) Reynobond? The answer to this, in part, depends on local building codes. Please contact your Area Sales Manager for more information,” reads a question-and-answer section.
For more than a week after the fire, Arconic declined repeated requests for comment. Then, on Thursday, the company confirmed that its flammable polyethylene panels had been used on the building. “The loss of lives, injuries and destruction following the Grenfell Tower fire are devastating, and we would like to express our deepest sympathies,” the company said. Asked about its varying product guidelines, the company added, “While we publish general usage guidelines, regulations and codes vary by country and need to be determined by the local building code experts.”
Hassan Ibrahim, who lived in an apartment on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower, was traveling outside England the day of the fire. His wife, Rania, and their two small children were not so lucky. As the smoke and flames drifted upward, Ms. Ibrahim debated with a neighbor whether to risk opening her door.
“Don’t open the front door,” her neighbor told her. “You are not going to be able to breathe — you are just going to bring the smoke in. You have your children. Standing near the door with all the smoke is not going to help you.”