There is a wealth of information coming to light about the use of panels with aluminium casing and polyethene insulation inside. I pursued cases from the late 1990’s about a similar product, albeit used structurally, where architects specified it for walls and roofs often in factories. A small fire in such a building would take hold and the insulation would melt, so that the building would collapse in much less time than a proper compartmentalised building. Fortunately, there were no deaths in my cases, just very heavy financial losses for the building owners and insurers.
Knowledge of the risk surfaced in 2003 when fire officers died in a factory fire at Sun Valley in Herefordshire. The walls and roof melted and fell in on them. A horrible way to learn about the danger. After this event they were a known risk and we were able to recover damages for buildings that failed in fires against construction teams.
There was an alternative product with mineral wool insulation which was more able to resist fire. After a few years, the construction industry recognised that the more combustible panels couldn’t be used. Subsequently, this type of case dwindled from my case load and was replaced by the type of fire spread case where builders had not effected compartmentalisation carefully enough, especially above ceilings.
It is surprising that aluminium casing and polyethene insulation products have been used to clad buildings. It seems to be the enemy of building performance in a fire, by creating a concealed void full of combustibles.
It’s not wholly clear why the Government is testing - if this sort of product was used one suspects it is inherently unlikely to pass.
No doubt we will learn more shortly. In the meantime my heart goes out, not just to the bereaved, but also those who must now lose their homes while the risks are addressed.
Cathy Hawkins has over 25 years’ experience in the financial sector and specialises in insurance law. She is a member of Cubism’s financial liabilities team, seeking compensation for victims of wrongdoing by banks and other financial institutions.