Surfside Collapse Lessons: What London's Grenfell Tower Fire Can Teach Us About Deadly Building Failures
Giles Grover was 200 miles from London’s Grenfell Tower on the night it was engulfed in flames. Waking to the news on the morning of June 14, 2017, he had no reason to suppose the tragedy, which cost 72 lives, would have any kind of personal impact for him, or implications for his ninth-floor Manchester apartment. He was wrong.
Four years later, he is facing a personal bill of between £15K and £22K, maybe more, to replace the cladding on his 2006-vintage apartment block. It is the same cladding held to be responsible for the rapid spread of the Grenfell fire.
For the 500,000 residents of up to 300 English apartment blocks facing similar issues, this has meant 24-hour fire watches and many sleepless nights.
Last month, at least 97 people died in the collapse of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium in Surfside, just north of Miami Beach. The aftershocks for the residential property sector could last for years, as experience after London’s 2017 Grenfell Tower fire shows.
Long after the Grenfell fire was extinguished, the apartment market is still in paralysis. Could the Champlain Towers South collapse lead to a similar crisis in the U.S.?
There is a broad consensus — among landlords, residents, the government — that the residents are not responsible for the poor cladding. Yet they are the people who have to foot the bill.
It could be worse: The English government has, after enormous pressure, agreed to pay some of the costs, and scaffolding has appeared around Giles Grover’s building ready to start work. But this isn’t the solution he wanted.
“The government have only funded part of this, the residents are paying the rest. But we have no idea how much the fire safety measures will end up costing, so we the residents are left on the hook for whatever the final bill is,” Grover said. “By intervening in the way the government has, it has only added to the uncertainty.”
Meanwhile, the prospect of selling his apartment has evaporated. Mortgage lenders will not touch apartments with the wrong cladding.
It is still early days, and much remains to be discovered about the Surfside collapse. Even so, many of the ingredients of a Grenfell-style national crisis are present.
Theories abound about the cause of the tragedy; the Miami Herald reported about a possible explosion in the fuel tank by the garage, and there were years of reports of leaks and structural issues of the concrete slab under the pool. The pool slab had been a problem for 25 years, linked to saltwater infiltration.
Whatever the cause, evidence is already emerging that suggests it is unlikely Champlain Towers South is the only building with major, unaddressed structural problems. An inspection of all buildings over five stories high and four decades old in Miami-Dade County revealed four that had to be evacuated, the Herald reported. Meanwhile, insurers are taking a much tougher line — also a prominent feature of the post-Grenfell crisis in the UK.
If concrete failure is found to be part of the problem, then this is unlikely to be a localized crisis. Concrete construction has a limited life span, and it requires expensive repairs. Across the U.S., it could amount to a multitrillion-dollar bill, Axios reported.
There are huge legal differences between London and Florida. Residents of Champlain Towers South are already reported to be taking legal action, while this week a judge has authorized a sale of the Surfside site, valued at north of $100M, to raise funds to deal with compensation claims.
Such speedy, decisive responses are unimaginable in the bewigged world of the English courts, even if property law made it possible: One of the great complaints of the cladding scandal is that apartment owners have no one they can legitimately sue.
That said, there are points of contact between Surfside and the post-Grenfell English experience. Apparently systemic failures in building codes and building practices, magnified by weaknesses in the ownership and management structures that surround multi-occupancy buildings, create a problem that requires enormous political will to resolve.
A Forced Rethink Of Construction Materials
Failures in building safety codes and construction methods were at the heart of the cause of the Grenfell fire, as well as the problems that have subsequently arisen.
At Grenfell, and the 300 other towers with Grenfell-style features, the problem was flammable external cladding that helped the fire spread. The cladding was perfectly legal before the fire — as many as 500,000 people live in affected buildings.
Mary-Anne Bowring, the founder of Ringley, a consultancy that works with the managers of UK apartment blocks, and an expert in fire safety issues, said that if the Surfside collapse was connected with concrete, the U.S. can expect post-Grenfell style consequences across the entire residential sector.
“The load of the pool, and subsidence, appear to have been in play, but I suspect Miami is mostly about carbonation to concrete and perhaps even insufficient concrete cover to the reinforcing rods, which is why we now require 50-millimeter concrete cover in the UK," she said.
It might, or perhaps should, prompt an industry move to meccano metal-framed buildings, rather than buildings built up with concrete poured slabs around metal reinforcing rods, she added.
"However, if you condemn concrete around metal reinforcing rods, and that method is so widespread …” She lets the idea form itself: This would have far-reaching and costly consequences.
It will take a long period of review in a construction industry that is notoriously bad at joined-up thinking. Many different specialties and interests will need to agree on what the lessons from Surfside are, and then to consider and evaluate alternatives. This will take years, Bowring said. It could also be very expensive.
Someone Has To Pay
But expensive for whom?
Sir Peter Bottomley is the longest-serving member of the UK House of Commons and chair of the parliamentary action group formed in the aftermath of the Grenfell collapse.
Bottomley told Bisnow that the problems of apartment building failure are more global than local, and are especially difficult to overcome among apartment blocks or condominium buildings that have multiple owners.
The UK has a leasehold system, in which apartment owners are effectively renting, having "bought" their tenancy by paying a large upfront advance rent. This creates a tangle of responsibilities that leaves the leaseholder with almost all the financial responsibilities and the freeholder, their nominal landlord, with almost none. Yet in Australia, which operates a "strata title" system for apartments that provides for common ownership, the same post-Grenfell cladding problems emerged, Bottomley pointed out.
“Grenfell and the cladding and fire safety problems in other blocks are the fault of building standards, of the people who control building standards, designers and others, but the one group who are not responsible, but under our system don’t have any right to sue anyone, are the leaseholder residents,” Bottomley said.
“Management and ownership structures like English leasehold do not create the problem — look at Australia where they don’t have leasehold but have the same issues with cladding — but these ownership structures do not help to put problems right. Residents are not responsible for building standards, and yet they are the ones asked to pay for putting them right.”
That obligation is inevitably the source of problems. At Champlain Towers South, the president of the building's condo association told residents as recently as April that they needed to contribute $15M to repair the concrete structure, but the maintenance needs had been known since 2018.
There are numerous other Miami-area condos that are unsafe because of neglected maintenance, Bisnow previously reported, not least thanks to the porous limestone rock that forms the foundations.
Searching For Solutions
Then comes the politics.
After four years of reflection, the English government has introduced legislation to improve the building code to put safety first for buildings over 18 meters, or 63 feet tall. It is widely welcomed, although some have complained about the expected substantial cost burden.
Under the rule, work cannot legally proceed to the next stage without certification from the relevant authority for fire safety. This is to bake quality control and long-term safety considerations into the construction process every step of the way, with legislative force.
Clifford Chance UK Head of Real Estate Construction Marianne Toghill explained the thinking.
“The aim is to create gateways at key stages of the project from planning/zoning, through to construction and occupation,” she said.
Whether such an approach could work in the U.S. is an open question. In the very different political (and constitutional) structure of the UK, finding the political will to unblock the building standards issues, the problem of historical legacy renovation costs, and locating liability in the right place, has taken four years and counting.
At first, the government tried to recover the costs of refurbishment from freeholders.
“The government wrongly thought the freeholders and ground rent investors could be bullied to pay, as the leases in place give them 100% recovery from the leaseholders," Bowring said.
Then the government wanted developers to pay, who may have done nothing wrong if they met building regulations at the time, she added.
If, like the progressive removal of asbestos, apartment owners had been given 20 years to make the changes, perhaps residents could have paid. But when they were required to act immediately, it proved impossible.
Grover's experience led him to help found a campaign group, The Manchester Cladiators. The group is a recognition that political will and political calculations have caused much of the post-Grenfell hurt.
“The government had a lot of lobbying from freeholders and developers, and eventually realized they wouldn’t pay, and after that it was a lack of political will to put right what other governments got wrong,” he said. “They first promised £200M to put this right, then they provided more money and it rose to £1.6B, now it’s £5.1B. It’s been about lobbying and pressing the government to listen.”
The market alone cannot solve the problem, Grover said, which is why political pressure was so important.
“All the parties involved here have concerns about liability. The mortgage companies, the insurers, so the government needs to resolve this because the market can’t. Somebody needs to pay the upfront costs that can be recouped over time,” Grover said.
He still faces a large bill, even after government intervention. Others face higher bills, and cannot sell their apartments to liquidate their obligations thanks to fears among mortgage lenders.