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Kits Secondary reno uses flammable cladding like Grenfell Tower

July 2, 2017

Foam from the core of cladding used in the Kits Secondary renovation, freshly ignited at 2:19 p.m. and 14 seconds (apologies for the accidental cross filter).

The $62.2 million Kitsilano Secondary School Renewal Project, begun in the fall of 2013, is nearing its scheduled completion date of fall 2017.

At its core, the external cladding being applied as part of the renewal project, to both new and renovated three-storey buildings around the 100-year-old Kitsilano Secondary School at 2706 Trafalgar Street, appears to be as flammable as the external cladding that accelerated the June 14th Grenfell Tower fire in London, U.K. and helped kill at least 79 people.

A fire hazard waiting to happen?

The Kits Secondary cladding foam 12 seconds after ignition.

The cladding system which was used to tile the outside of the Grenfell Tower was an aluminum composite product called Reynobond PE, consisting of rectangular, 3-mm-thick, casings formed of thin sheet aluminum and each filled with a rigid slab of highly flammable polyethylene foam—hence the “PE” in the product name.

Acronis, the company that makes Reynobond PE, also makes a fire-resistant variety, with the suffix “FR”.

According to the Guardian, the flammable PE variety of Reynobond is £2 ($3.38) cheaper per square metre than the fire-resistant FR variety, which uses a polyethylene foam heavily infused with mineral wool.

Stray cladding (stamped with “Cascadia Metal”) and foam filler littering the Trafalger St. side of the Kitsilano Secondary School site on Monday night.

The external cladding used on the Kitsilano Secondary School buildings does not appear to be Reynobond, insomuch as the inside surfaces of the cladding is stamped with the name and logo of Cascadia Metal, a metal-working company with B.C. offices in Langley and Delta.

But the foam used to add rigidity and insulation value to the Kitsilano Secondary cladding—whether polyethylene or not—proved to be terribly flammable in its own right.

Kitsilano Secondary—a centenarian just clad to be standing?

Finished external cladding on the east side of a two-storey structure on the 12 Avenue side of the Kitsilano Secondary site.

I visited the Kitsilano Secondary School site on Monday evening (June 26) and and was able to see the cladding in various stages of installation, down to the supporting grid system bolted to the buildings, on which the cladding hangs.

The Trafalgar side of the Kits Secondary site showing finished cladding and some of the support grid that the cladding attaches to.

I did not get a chance to put a magnet to the cladding to see if it was aluminum or ferrous metal but I’m almost certain that it’s aluminum, because the weight-savings of aluminum, along with its natural resistance to oxidization, helps make this type of cladding a practical product.

At least I had the presence of mind to retrieve a piece of the rigid foam filler for later examination.

Combustible foam-filled metal cladding backed by combustible plastic vapour barrier separated from combustible plywood by (I hope) a non-combustible barrier.

The results of that examination (which involved putting a lighter to the palm-sized piece of hard foam) can be seen at the top of the post—the foam was consumed in a furious display of flame and black smoke, in less than 30 seconds!

1. combustible foam-filled metal cladding; 2. light metal cladding support; 3 Henry Blueskin SA vapour barrier, with low Class A fire resistance; 4. combustible plywood.

Almost all poly foams (polyurethane, polyethylene, polystyrene, etc.) readily burn like that, whether they are board stock or sprayed on.

It’s frankly a wonder to me why such well-know fire accelerants can legally be used for the construction of a school, let alone any other kind building in Canada.

When I asked the Vancouver School Board (VSB) about the apparently flammable external cladding being installed on Kitsilano Secondary School buildings, I received the following reply via email:

“The exterior cladding at Kitsilano Secondary meets the requirement of the National Building Code of Canada and the Vancouver Building Bylaw.

In addition, our schools contain multiple exits and are fully sprinklered which provides a high level of safety.

  • The Vancouver Building Bylaw provides for strict testing of combustible cladding used in buildings exceeding three storeys or located in close proximity to adjacent buildings. Neither of these conditions apply to Kitsilano Secondary.
  • The Building Bylaw, consistent with the National Building Code of Canada and the BC Building Code permits combustible cladding with or without foam not exceeding a flame spread of 500, in the walls of a three-storey building (Vancouver Building Bylaw Sentence (3)). The Bylaw does require foam insulation be separated from occupied spaces inside the building by a layer of ½” gypsum wallboard, which it is. The steel panels at Kitsilano Secondary conform to this.
  • Further, Kitsilano Secondary is a fully sprinklered building which inherently provides a very high level of safety. With multiple exits, the building can be evacuated in less than five minutes.”

The VSB’s response shows that it has endeavoured to stay within the law and best current practices, though I question the wisdom of those practices.

I also question the VSB’s assertion that the conditions for strict testing do not apply to the combustible cladding on the Kitsilano Secondary School buildings.

The Kitsilano Secondary satellite buildings are not above three-storeys in height but they certainly are in close proximity to—that is to say, right up against—the original brick-clad school.

The statement’s reference to “steel panels” is also worth noting.

As I say, I did not get the opportunity to put a magnet on one of the panels so, for the moment, I will take the VSB’s word that they are made of steel, rather than aluminum, as I would expect—it’s an important difference.

Steel, with its melting point between 1400° and 1500° C, inherently offers greater fire resistance than aluminum, which melts at 660° C.

A necessity or a luxury?

Plastic foam-filled aluminum composite material (ACM) cladding systems (also known as sandwich panels) are popular with architects, builders and their clients—and becoming more popular by the day—because they are cheap, install rapidly and perform several functions at once:

  • They add a modern-looking exterior to any new or old building.
  • They act as a primary rain-screen defense.
  • They add the higher insulation value demanded by new “green” building standards.
  • And they add some soundproofing to boot.

Did I mention cheapness?

Every person in the building trades that I have spoken with has emphasized how exterior ACM cladding is the absolutely cheapest and quickest way to “modernize” a tired-looking old building.

In the case of the 43-year-old Grenfell Tower in London, U.K., documents show that the decision to add flammable Reynobond PE cladding was taken in large part to make the building look better in the eyes of wealthy neighbours living in nearby luxury condos.

Of course, the “Reyno” in Reynobond stands for “renovation”.

It’s fair, I think, to describe ACM cladding as inexpensive waterproof wallpaper for the exterior of buildings—particularly old buildings.

ACM cladding systems, like Acronis’s Reynobond, or Alucobond, may be waterproof but they are anything but fireproof because—out of necessity—they invariably rely on a flammable core of rigid plastic foam.

Because it is meant to be the outer face of a wall, ACM cladding must be solid and durable. But being nothing but added weight on a load-bearing wall, ACM cladding must also be as light as possible.

ACM cladding panels are formed like thin boxes (perhaps 3 mm thick) out of sheet aluminum. Without filler these boxes would be far too flimsy. Rigid foam inserts provides the necessary flatness and solidity without adding appreciable or prohibitive weight. That the foam also adds insulation and soundproofing value may be seen as something of a bonus.

There are instances of ACM systems which use an aluminum honeycomb insert in place of the rigid foam but, for reasons of cost, the vast majority of installed ACM cladding in use is filled with flammable rigid plastic foam.

High-risk material that Canada allows on low-rise buildings

The renovated office building at 1245 West Broadway, with ACM cladding and a line of outward-facing fire sprinklers at ground level.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, Canadian media reports (such as from Huffington Post) have been downright soothing in their assurance that such a tragedy as happened in London, U.K., is unlikely to happen in Canada, thanks to this country’s stricter building codes—at least as compared to the U.K.

It is true that Canadian building codes are strict about requiring many kinds of active and passive fire suppression—especially in new construction. It is also true that across Canada the use of combustible, thermoplastic-filed exterior cladding is regulated and generally limited to the lower storeys of buildings.

However, Canadian building codes vary from the federal level to the provincial level and from one province to the next and even from one city to the next.

The entrance of the three-storey, ACM-clad B.C. Centre for Disease Control at 655 West 12th Avenue.

In the province of British Columbia, combustible cladding systems are permitted on a non-combustible building, if the building is not more than three storeys in height, or is sprinklered throughout. And if the interior surface of the cladding wall assembly is protected by a thermal barrier that passes a Fire Test of Exterior Wall Assemblies, which measures flame and heat spread.

The City of Vancouver’s building by-law trumps the B.C. building code but more-or-less appears to follow the province, where combustible cladding is concerned, except that there are instances in the city where three or four floors of ACM cladding begin with the second storey.

The mew multi-unit building at 2850 Cambie Street with cladding on four of nine storeys.

The City of Sadkatoon, Saskatchewan, according to CTV News, follows a federal building code which allows combustible cladding on buildings of no more than three storeys, or (apparently) taller buildings with sprinklers throughout. Wall assemblies must also pass a fire test.

The Ontario building code, according to the Toronto Sun, allows for combustible exterior cladding to be used on the first six storeys of a building (“under seven storeys”), with automatic sprinkler protection required if the combustible cladding exceeds three storeys.

The logic of allowing combustible exterior ACM cladding on the first three to seven storeys appears to be that fire and rescue services can typically reach this height with ladders and that fire suppression systems, such as sprinklers, will negate the tendency of the plastic to ignite explosively.

So, I guess I shouldn’t worry for the three storey buildings that I can see in Fairview and Kitsilano that are, or may be, clad with combustible ACM cladding.

These include (but are not limited to) the refurbushed two- and three-storey buildings of the Kitsilano Secondary School, the recently ACM-clad three-storey office building at 1245 West Broadway (with its conspicuous outward-facing fire sprinklers at ground level), or the three-storey, nearly block-long, building of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control at 639 West 12th Avenue. Not to mention the new nine storey multi-unit building, across the street from City Hall, at 2850 Cambie Street, which appears to have fully four floors of ACM cladding beginning at the second storey.

Outside of the City of Vancouver, in the 21 other municipalities of Metro Vancouver, there are any number of buildings covered with flammable plastic-filled ACM cladding. Some are low-rises, like a number of projects by the Surrey, B.C., company Phoenix Panels, including the Ambros Centre at 19188 72nd Avenue, Surrey, B.C.; North West Rubber at 33850 Industrial Avenue; Abbotsford, B.C. and a warehouse at 1935 Boxwood Road, Nanaimo, B.C., to name a few—all clad in Reynobond PE.

“Fire-resistant” does not mean “fireproof”

Just on the south edge of the City of Vancouver, there is the new Marine Gateway complex at Cambie Street and Marine Drive, which includes three towers of 14-, 25 and 35-storeys and which—top-to-bottom, inside-and-out—boasts over 200,000 square feet of Alucobond Plus cladding, an ACM cladding with a fire-resistant core of mineral-infused plastic foam.

As Alucobond says of the cladding provided for the Marine Gateway:

“Alucobond consists of two sheets of 0.020” aluminum thermobonded to a plastic core. Alucobond provides extraordinary flatness and rigidity, excellent formability, low weight and outstanding weather resistance. Alucobond aluminum-faced panels are manufactured with a polyethylene core in a standard 4mm thickness. Alucobond Plus wall panels have a flame-spread index of less than 25 and a smoke-developed index of less than 450 when tested in accordance with ASTM E 84, and have a Class A interior finish classification.”

As I understand it, 25 is a decently low fire spread index.

However, in 2007, the heat of a welder’s torch was enough to touch off the fire-resistant plastic-filled ACM cladding covering one entire concrete face of the 33-storey Water Club Tower at the Borgata Casino hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. The building was under construction and largely unoccupied but millions of dollars of damages resulted, very quickly.

Most notably, first-hand information on the fireengineering website (which is widely linked but may now be blocked to non-subscribers) describes how the fire-resistant plastic core of the cladding on the Water Club Tower liquified under high heat and became explosively flammable. The effect was compared to wrapping the building in gasoline!

Not surprisingly, a loss prevention trainer with Federated Insurance of Canada has likened solid polyurethane foam—used in ACM cladding and increasingly in spray foam insulation applications—to “solid gasoline”.

Unsafe at any height

The primary problem with ACM cladding is, of course, the highly flammable foam which is an integral component. The secondary problem with ACM cladding is its growing popularity.

The more applications that are allowed of this irresponsibly dangerous building material, the more opportunities for tragedy.

ACM cladding has already been a significant factor in scores of highrise fires around the world going back 20 years.

According to the Toronto Star, a 2015 Dubai fire on New Year’s Eve, saw ACM panels help fire race up all 63-storeys of a luxury hotel in minutes. This was just one of eight such ACM-driven fires in the United Arab Emirates in the last 20 years. The Star cited an Associated Press  survey, which found “similar blazes have struck major cities across the world, killing dozens of people.”

The Grenfell Tower fire was simply the last straw, so far as the use of combustible ACM cladding on towers is concerned.

And, as it just occurred to the Financial Times a week ago “Lower-rise buildings are no less at risk of fire” from ACM cladding than the Grenfell Tower was.

In fact, low-rise buildings are now at a much higher risk because—even as the use of flammable cladding is being halted on highrises—it’s use on low-rise buildings is accelerating.

Playing with fire?

One should fear that the increasing popularity of ACM classing will inevitably result in low-rise fires of startling speed and ferocity. Such ACM-accelerated low-rise fires may already have been occurring for years but they will only now become newsworthy in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

And I’m no more comfortable with allowing fire-resistant ACM cladding on highrise towers because the fire-resistant plastic is still tremendously flammable—it just has a higher ignition point, is all.

Ask yourself what other combustible material is allowed in Canadian buildings that is anywhere near so combustible as rigid plastic foam is? Certainly not any wood product that I know of.

I believe that Canadian building trades are irresponsible in their growing willingness to use plastic foam-based building products, such as ACM cladding—particularly because it appears to be for the sake of cheapness more than anything else. But far more irresponsible, I think, are Canadian regulators for not completely banning the use of combustible plastic foams in construction.

Must we wait for our own Grenfell Tower fire before Canada does the sensible thing and forces its construction trades to adopt safer and available (albeit more expensive) alternatives? Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Development, Fairview

  1. Yikes, this not good news for the school board regardless of the height of the building.

  2. Toby permalink

    Kind of almost (but not quite) make you wish for asbestos cement materials (aka ACM) for their superior fire retardant, thermal and noise insulation properties.

    • Ironically, there was apparently quite a bit of asbestos in the Grenfell Tower, which the fire, driven by the flammable ACM cladding, blow all over the neighbourhood. So — the worst of both worlds!

      Couldn’t we hope for the vaunted prowess of materials science to come up with a modern insulation medium that betters what we’ve had for the last 60 to 100 years?

      Perhaps we shouldn’t hope for this any more than for a non-addictive, non-lethal alternative to the opioid analgesics which Western medicine has been relying on for the last 400 years.

      Progress. Bah!

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