Setting the scene ... 

A 14-storey apartment block in Valencia was observed to be fully engulfed by flames after a fire started on the 8th floor balcony, believed to be due to an electrical fault in a balcony awning motor. Due to high winds, accompanied with combustible cladding, the flames spread rapidly, soon involving the adjacent apartment block as well. Lack of sprinklers and automatic fire detection and alarm system were additional shortcomings; all of which led to the heartbreaking tragedy of 10 people losing their lives (including a newly married couple and their two-week old baby) and more than 15 injured, making it one of the worst events in recent Spanish history. 

How did this happen? 

Investigations are still underway, and nothing can be confirmed for certain. However, some media outlets (such as the Spanish Olive Press and the British BBC) are referencing ACMs (Aluminium Composite Materials) as the culprit within the façade which led to the rapid spread of flames from the balcony of origin. The connected building blocks were housing approximately 450 occupants and built by the same company (FBEX) which was dissolved in 2010. The company is believed to have operated in multiple regions in Spain before its liquidation. 

The cladding 

Investigations into the type of cladding used showed “Larson” as the logo printed on the cladding materials during the construction of the building from images on Google Maps in May 2008. According to the Olive Press, ‘Larson’ is the brand name for aluminium composite materials (ACMs) produced by Alucoil, a Spanish multinational company based in Burgos. 

Currently, Alucoil produces only two types of cladding ACMs, Larson FR and Larson A2, with Larson A2 being introduced within the last 10 years. However, prior to the Grenfell Tower Fire, Alucoil appeared to have been producing a type known as Larson PE, which indicated a worse classification in terms of reaction to fire, as this type was discontinued after Grenfell. Marketing materials for Larson PE indicated that it was still on sale until late 2018. 

In line with official datasheets, Larson PE is formed of two layers of aluminium sheets with a low-density polyethylene core sandwiched between them. This material received an E Reaction to Fire classification on the EU’s EN-13501 fire safety test, which is the same rating attributed to Reynobond PE—the cladding type associated with the rapid spread of flames during the Grenfell Tower fire. 

For context, recent changes in the regulations in the UK now require all residential buildings above 11 meters in height to be cladded with materials achieving a minimum of A2 Reaction to Fire classification. Larson PE was observed to have been used in buildings around the world, including the UK. According to the Olive Express, in 2018, due to failed fire safety tests, five tower blocks in Norwich had their Larson PE aluminium composite cladding removed from their facades. 

Layers of protection in fire safety 

It should be noted that fire safety operates as layers, with each layer having a less chance of achieving fire safety when on its own, and with the best results achieved when they all work together. 

Prevention, as the first layer, could’ve been possibly utilised if the motor that ignited on the balcony was adequately electrically tested, thus reducing the likelihood of a fire occurring in the first place. 

Once the fire occurred, detection, as the second layer, could’ve notified residents early enough to be able to make their escape, thus playing a crucial role in life safety. However, as the fire started on a balcony, it could be argued that detectors would not have activated early enough to make a proper difference. Also, as blocks of flats are generally known to have detection systems that are localised to each flat and common within the communal areas, other residents might not have bene notified in time, at least until fire or smoke had reached a communal area. 

Clear exits routes, emergency lighting, and evacuation procedures are essential. Evacuation, as the third layer, aims to protect lives by ensuring everyone leaves the premises swiftly. As it is still unclear whether this has been an issue in the Valencia fire, this layer cannot be commented on. 

The provision of adequate cavity barriers within the façade might have slowed down the fire spread enough for residents to make a timely escape.

Compartmentation, as the fourth layer, was probably one of the key players in the Valencia fire. It’s yet unclear if the internal compartmentation between the flats has failed, but what’s confirmed is that compartmentation within the façade was inadequate. The fire managed to spread into other flats via the combustible façade, unstopped by any intermediate compartmentation. The provision of adequate cavity barriers within the façade might have slowed down the fire spread enough for residents to make a timely escape. 

Suppression, as another layer, could’ve possibly limited the spread of the fire and allowed residents to have a timely escape before the fire grew uncontrollably. However, as it’s a residential building and would’ve had a residential suppression system, most probably the tank size would not have been sufficient to cover multiple flats burning at once. This is why compartmentation would be considered as the most important element in the Valencia fire scenario. 

The different layers work together to enhance overall fire safety. By implementing multiple preventive and protective measures, the likelihood of fires and their potential consequences are both reduced. It is possible to state that if all, or most, of the above measures were present within the residential tower, the consequences of the fire could be much less tragic. 

Learnings from Grenfell 

After the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, an independent review to the Building Regulations and Fire Safety commenced to understand the shortcomings of those that led to the disaster in 2017. This review concluded that the current system was not efficient enough and failing, especially when it came to high rise buildings, and thus needed major amendments. 

The Building Safety Act and The Planning Gateways were introduced to make sure that fire safety is incorporated into buildings from the earliest stage possible, thus ensuring proactivity. Also, changes to requirements of materials were introduced, thus banning the materials that led to the disaster. 

The Valencia fire seems to echo the Grenfell disaster, with similar scenes of loss and destruction. Lessons from Grenfell don’t seem to have been fully learned, as evidenced by the Valencia incident. 

This perhaps further pushes the need for European, if not worldwide, regulations to ensure that lessons are learned, and tragedies are not repeated. It’s not possible to say whether early detection and alarm or a suppression system would’ve prevented the loss of life, but maybe that could’ve helped reduce the magnitude of the tragedy. 

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Lessons from Grenfell don’t seem to have been fully learned, as evidenced by the Valencia incident.