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Ronan Point: ‘If you take a card away from the house of cards, the whole thing collapses’

PUBLISHED: 09:45 16 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:17 16 May 2018

Professor John Knapton. Picture: John Knapton

Professor John Knapton. Picture: John Knapton

Archant

After the Grenfell Tower fire last year, Ronan Point holds more resonance than ever.

Four people were killed after Ronan Point collapsed. Pics: PA ArchiveFour people were killed after Ronan Point collapsed. Pics: PA Archive

But according to civil engineering expert Professor John Knapton, Grenfell could have been so much worse, were it not for Ronan Point.

John’s phone rang while Grenfell was still ablaze. Authorities wanted to know if it was safe to send in firemen.

“People were looking at this tower, thinking it looked just like 9/11,” he said.

“They wanted to know whether it would collapse.

“I had to make the call.”

John knew the tower would be structurally sound, thanks to changes Ronan Point triggered 45 years earlier.

“The problem with Ronan Point was the way we designed at the time,” he said.

“The walls were made of panels, put together in factories.

“Buildings were made by stacking floors, one on top of the other, like a house of cards.

“The initial spark was a gas explosion, and that explosion blew out one of these panels.

“Imagine, if you take a card away from the house of cards, the whole thing collapses.”

After that, the whole industry changed. From 1968 to 1972, regulations were overhauled.

“Instead of simply designing each panel to be strong, we had to put structural ties through buildings and around the perimeter.

“Instead of a house of cards, we were building a bird’s nest.”

Grenfell was one of the last domestic high rises built in the UK. It sprung up in 1974, after the regulations changed.

Again, a design fault led to the disaster – though it wasn’t stacked panels, or even cladding, which was to blame.

“The fire wasn’t a result of combustible cladding,” John said. “Anything will catch fire if you try hard enough.

“Grenfell happened because round its perimeter, there were 12 triangles of concrete sticking out from the top to the bottom.

“They had to get the cladding round these triangles and the design meant there was a gap, which acted as a chimney.”

Grenfell occurred during Ramadan. Many people were still up, cooking and eating.

The hot night meant windows were open and curtains were flapping, allowing the fire to escape into the surrounding chimney.

“What I learnt from Ronan Point, from 9/11, and now from Grenfell,” John said, “is we have to be more imaginative in what we consider could go wrong.”

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