Camden News
Publications by New Journal Enterprises
  Home Archive Competition Jobs Tickets Accommodation Dating Contact us
Camden New Journal - FORUM: Opinion in the CNJ
Published: 16 July 2009
Sunand Prasad
Sunand Prasad
Blow whistle on tower fire risks

After Camberwell Sunand Prasad argues that high-rise blocks are not inherently dangerous – poor design and
management make them so

THE preliminary findings of the report into the circumstances behind the fire in a block of flats in Camberwell, south London, have yet to be known.
It is utterly shocking that six people lost their lives in a tower block fire in London in 2009, and once the report is completed, we need to take action to ensure this does not happen again.
Lakanal House, a 12-storey block, was designed in 1959, and the fire cannot help but prompt a debate on fire safety in other public housing projects dating from the same period.
We need to be sure that blocks of all ages in Camden are safe, and with the knowledge fire safety experts, architects and engineers have, this is achievable.
We know how to design and build homes to ensure the safety of people living there, and there is not much that is not known about how to react to fires in tall buildings.
Luxury high rise housing around the world offers living conditions for residents as safe as any (see the New York development, pictured), so it is not about the height of the building, let alone modern architecture: instead, we need to consider whether there are risks to people living in tower blocks because of poor design, poor construction , poor maintenance or poor management or most often a combination of all four.
People in Camden will want assurance that there have been thorough and regular safety checks carried out on every council-owned property, and action taken if fire precautions are not adequate.
We need to know that no dangerous conditions exist that will allow fire to spread rapidly, as we have seen happened in Camberwell.
We also need to encourage whistle-blowers to reveal aspects of poor maintenance or management: for example, employees must not be frightened to speak out.
And there are four points that should be considered by council housing departments to ensure a tragedy like this does not happen again.
l First there is, of course, an onus on the householder to take adequate precautions themselves and not let a fire start. But if it does, building design and construction should help contain it within the flat.
Even if fire breaks out there should be other safety systems in communal areas to stop it spreading further.
How to do this is no mystery - there are very clear fire regulation in the UK and we are leaders in fire safety with the world class expertise of the Building Research Establishment.
The way the fire spread in Camberwell shows something was very wrong.
l Another crucial failure in Camberwell was that some people stayed put and perished even while others sheltering in the same room got out. Once a fire breaks out and people are alerted, they need to know what to do.
In work places, everyone has regular fire drills and are shown how to get out if a fire starts.
Yet people who are living in estates do not get similar information about what to do in the event of a fire.
Camden tenants could perhaps have six-monthly fire drills. We have two a year in our office – why should it be different for flats?
Many tenants are vulnerable people, the elderly, infirm and young. They need to know what they should do.
Just as businesses are required by law to adhere to evacuation procedures, so should landlords.
l We need better fire alarm systems installed.
A centralised fire alarm system, as you would find in an office block is the most effective way to give residents proper warnings. Smoke alarms in individual flats are, of course, essential but they do not warn people in other flats of a fire in the building.
You have a centralised alarm system in businesses, we need them on our estates.
While this may not counter problems of design, the earlier people find out there is a fire, the better it is.
l And, finally, the fire crews must be given all the equipment and facilities they need to do their job such as “dry risers” where appropriate so fire crews have water high up in buildings.
Again there are good tried and tested practices aplenty but they need to be universally applied.
As a young architect it was normal to meet firefighters and get advice from them.
I am all for that direct contact, allowing to draw on their experience.
I personally learnt a lot from firemen. But fire has moved on a long way during my career and we need to tap into that. There is no lack of knowledge but we do not always make sure best practice is observed in reality. We must change that to make sure such a tragedy does not happen again.

* Sunand Prasad is the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Send your letters to: The Letters Editor, Camden New Journal, 40 Camden Road, London, NW1 9DR or email to The deadline for letters is midday Tuesday. The editor regrets that anonymous letters cannot be published, although names and addresses can be withheld. Please include a full name, postal address and telephone number. Letters may be edited for reasons of space.

Comment on this article.
(You must supply your full name and email address for your comment to be published)







Theatre Music
Arts & Events Attractions