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Shadow of Grenfell Fire Tragedy Looms Large Over UK Building Expo

Taking place just nine months after 72 people died in a fire in a London tower block, there was an understandably sombre mood at Ecobuild, one of the UK's leading trade events for professionals in the built-environment sector.

Photo: Grenfell: The 24-storey blaze that rocked the UK in general and its construction industry in particular.
Grenfell: The 24-storey blaze that rocked the UK in general and its construction industry in particular.
Photo: Grenfell: The 24-storey blaze that rocked the UK in general and its construction industry in particular.
Grenfell: The 24-storey blaze that rocked the UK in general and its construction industry in particular.

Environmentalists, architects and building specifiers are never short of a topic or two whenever they assemble, with discussions typically heartfelt, occasionally provocative and – always – lengthy. Even when measured against that standard, however, the debate at this year's Ecobuild – the London-hosted conference and exhibition that bills itself as "the number one event for forward thinkers in the built environment" – was both heated and protracted.

Apart from the expected concern over the ever-more imminent deadlines for compliance with several international environmental treaties – including the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the New Urban Agenda and the Paris Agreement – there was another issue that preoccupied many of the attendees. Just three months after the 2017 edition of Ecobuild concluded, a fire in a high-rise social housing tower block in West London resulted in the deaths of 72 residents, making it the worse such incident in the UK for more than a century.

Inevitably, in the aftermath of the tragedy, attention quickly turned to determining the likely cause. At the same time, another issue quickly rose to the top of the national agenda: as the fire-preventive measures in this particular building – Grenfell Tower – were clearly woefully inadequate, was the rest of the UK housing stock any safer? Eventually, concern coalesced around the cladding applied to the tower block, with many clearly horrified to discover just how flammable the material turned out to be.

Although the scene of the conflagration was some 12 miles away from the exhibition hall that housed Ecobuild, Grenfell Tower still managed to cast a long shadow over this year's event, with the issues of cause, prevention and responsibility forever on the periphery of pretty much every conversation. Nor was the show's schedule unaffected by the tragedy, with a special panel convened to address the issue.

Mediated by Lynne Sullivan, Chair of the Good Homes Alliance, an industry-wide UK group committed to promoting sustainable housing, the panel took Construction Quality in a Post-Grenfell World as its theme. Summarising the strong feelings expressed during the forum, Sullivan said: "The Grenfell Tower fire needs to be seen as a huge wake-up call. It is symptomatic of systemic failures across the industry, all of which need to be dealt with urgently. It's down to the government and the wider construction industry to accept their responsibilities and implement real and lasting change."

Grenfell, however, wasn't the only wider issue to make a specific impact at this year's Ecobuild. Just a few days before the event, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, called for the country's housebuilding programme to be stepped up and threatened to take action against any local planners, land banking developers or councils who impeded such progress. While this – part of her speech to the party faithful at the annual Conservative conference – met an initially mixed response, for many of those attending Ecobuild, it offered a clear opportunity.

With the UK government now committed to building 300,000 new homes a year for the foreseeable future, while also acknowledging the need to upgrade the huge number of the country's existing 24 million homes deemed to have poor energy management and low compliance with environmental-protection requirements, it is easy to see just how much potential work there is for the smarter end of the construction sector.

A significant proportion of the UK's housing stock dates back to Georgian or even Victorian times (think 1837-1901), with many such homes featuring solid walls that retain comparatively little heat. In order to subtly retrofit these particular residences – boosting their heat-retention capacity without compromising their classic aesthetics – the thinnest and least conspicuous available insulation needs to be used.

Again, with many businesses only too aware of the potential size of this particular sector, there were several solutions on offer. While Denmark's Rockwool and Ireland's Kingspan offered vacuum insulation panels suitably contoured for internal use, Leicestershire-based Radmat Building Products was looking more at tackling the external challenges via its ProTherm Quantum inverted roofing insulation, said to be far thinner than the industry standard, while just as effective and wholly recyclable.

Photo: Poor energy management: Victorian housing stock.
Poor energy management: Victorian housing stock.
Photo: Poor energy management: Victorian housing stock.
Poor energy management: Victorian housing stock.
Photo: UK builders urged to ensure rain-readiness.
UK builders urged to ensure rain-readiness.
Photo: UK builders urged to ensure rain-readiness.
UK builders urged to ensure rain-readiness.

As anyone who has visited the UK, whether for work or leisure, can testify, any construction project that fails to factor in dealing with excessive precipitation is likely to come a cropper. In line with this, while a moderate downfall can be collected for later use or discharged into drains, excessive rain can easily lead to flooding unless some allowance has been made.

One common approach is to ensure that any paved areas of a development have a degree of permeability, which slows run-off while also benefiting nearby trees and shrubs. One company that has developed a bespoke solution to this is Essex-based Ronacrete, with the construction-products specialist keen to promote its RonaDeck EcoPath UV system. Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDS) compliant, the effectiveness of this permeable, paved surface has been further enhanced via the incorporation of recycled rubber granules.

While excessive rain is likely to remain a perennial British problem, the country has had more luck in terms of tackling its air quality issues over the past half-century. Despite this, it is far from unknown for air quality in many of the UK's larger cities to fall well below WHO-recommended levels, with some going as far as to say that London had a higher air particulate concentration than famously smoggy Beijing in early 2017.

In light of such concerning figures, as well as the huge public awareness of this particular issue, improving air quality in the built environment has become something of a priority. Looking to capitalise on this was Airlite, a northern Italy-based company offering a range of paint said to neutralise air pollution. Through its harnessing of the photo-catalytic oxidisation effect of titanium dioxide, the paint also destroys bacteria. For those unconvinced of the ubiquity of such a product, a more conventional solution came courtesy of Leicester-based Blauberg UK, most particularly with its Building Research Establishment (BRE) approved mechanical ventilation system, complete with heat-recovery units.

Perhaps as another consequence of the notorious foibles of the British climate, heating is always a big issue at Ecobuild, with this year's event, again, having a seminar programme entirely devoted to its associated challenges and all the latest related innovations. For 2018, one of the most well-attended heat-related items on the event schedule was the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy-sponsored Heat Networks Lounge, which gave showgoers the chance to buttonhole any passing expert.

Overall, with interest notably up in both ground-source and air-source heating this year, there was range of solutions on offer for both variants. For the former, you could do worse than having a chat with Lodz-bases Aspol FV, which had made the 3,000km round trip to London to promote its EnerGeo ground source heat pump system. In the case of the latter, Austria's Ochsner had taken a 400km shorter trip to showcase its own range of air-source heat pumps.

It was a comparatively local company, Newton Aycliffe-based Go Geothermal (800km there and back), though, that seemed to be attracting particular scrutiny with its wide range of heat pumps and distribution equipment. Singled out for the most attention was the company's AirVolt Plus system, which utilises innovative aerovoltaic solar panel technology.

While generating electricity through conventional photovoltaic cells, it also features an insulated cavity, which allows air to be heated in the same fashion that water is heated in passive solar panels. The warm air is then aspirated, filtered and distributed around the home. As something of a bonus, unwanted heat can then be stored in the company's Store H solar heat battery.

Photo: Ecobuild 2018: Wondering which bits of Britain remain salvageable.
Ecobuild 2018: Wondering which bits of Britain remain salvageable.
Photo: Ecobuild 2018: Wondering which bits of Britain remain salvageable.
Ecobuild 2018: Wondering which bits of Britain remain salvageable.

Ecobuild 2018 took place from 6-8 March at Excel London. The event featured more than 450 exhibitors, as well as 500 industry speakers, while also attracting some 26,500 visitors.

Glenville Holmes, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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