Tuesday, July 23, 2024

A fire at Grenfell Towers in London on Wednesday killed at least 30 residents. (Photo: 70023venus2009)

In the wake of a disastrous high-rise fire in London in which aluminum building cladding may be implicated, Cambridge officials are looking into similar material used in renovation of a Housing Authority development with elderly and disabled tenants – and finding cause for reassurance.

News reports have identified aluminum cladding installed last year on the Grenfell Tower building in London as a possible factor in the rapid spread of the fire on Wednesday. So far 30 residents have been confirmed to have died in the blaze, but there are 28 more missing and presumed dead as workers sift through the wreckage of the building.

Manning Apartments

A rendering shows the nearly 200-unit public housing Manning Apartments in Central Square after renovations. (Image: Cambridge Housing Authority)

The rehabilitation of the 19-story Frank J. Manning Apartments in Central Square includes installing aluminum cladding on the outside of the building.

Primary causes

With news of the fire in London, Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Johnston said Lt. Christopher Towski, of the Cambridge Fire Department’s fire prevention unit, questioned authority employees and workers at Shawmut Design and Construction, which is working on the rehabilitation, on Thursday. Acting Fire Chief Gerard Mahoney said his staff has asked the Inspectional Services Department to join the inquiries because the issue involves the building code.

Johnston said he has been told that “it was not the metal panel that was the real problem, but the insulation behind the panel.” The panels used in the Manning project have “mineral wool insulation which will not burn,” he said, noting also that Manning “is a completely sprinklered building despite being constructed of pre-cast concrete.”

According to news reports, the London high-rise was also not required to have sprinklers.

Additional assurances

Another possible issue relating to the London building metal was “adhesives or the vapor barrier,” Mahoney said. News reports say the panels on Grenfell Tower contained a flammable polyurethane core; aluminum cladding that is fire-resistant is also available, but many buildings throughout the world have panels that are not fire-resistant.

The Massachusetts building code requires that material such as aluminum cladding be certified as able to withstand catching on fire for at least two hours, Mahoney said. “As far as we know [material used at Manning] has to meet the building code,” he said. He didn’t know “what is allowed in London or other parts of the U.S.”

The department is looking into the issue in response to “an inquiry,” he said.

Details remain

Metal panels were also used on the outside of the LBJ Apartments, another senior/disabled high-rise that was rehabilitated in 2011, Mahoney said, while Johnston believed Manning to be “the only building we have with metal panels.”

The work at LBJ included installing a black “solar wall” made of metal in one section of the building to help use solar energy to heat the building. In contrast to aluminum cladding, the solar wall was perforated and apparently not insulated. It couldn’t be learned what metal was used for the solar wall.

Inspection officials didn’t immediately return a phone call Friday.