Megan Specia | The New York Times | June 27, 2017
Hundreds of families were evacuated this week from Dorney Tower, a 23-story London apartment building, after the authorities found unsafe features in it and nearly a hundred other buildings after the deadly Grenfell Tower blaze.
Would the building’s construction have passed safety regulations in New York City? Not even close.
Here are the shortfalls in Dorney Tower that never would have passed muster in New York, which has much more stringent building codes and safety checks, according to city safety officials.
Flammable exterior covering
Dorney Tower, completed in 1967 and refurbished in 2008, shares several problematic features with Grenfell Tower, which was encased in a flammable exterior covering, known as cladding, that contributed to the fire’s rapid spread. The cladding on the tower, which was added in 2008, failed safety tests this week.
In New York City, cladding must be tested and found to be fire resistant before it can ever be put on a building, said Thomas Fariello, first deputy commissioner for the city’s Department of Buildings, which enforces building codes.
The requirement dates to 1968, and has been made more stringent since. Though retrofitted buildings may be held to different standards, new buildings are inspected upon completion to make sure that cladding was installed properly and that it matches the material that was tested. Facades on buildings taller than 75 feet are inspected every five years.
“The siding material in this city, with that fire testing, is not going to be able to go up in flames like that,” Mr. Fariello said.
The same contractor installed cladding on both Grenfell Tower and Dorney Tower, although officials said the material was different. The local authorities said the cladding on Dorney Tower would be removed.
Single stairway for evacuation
Dorney Tower, like Grenfell Tower, has only one flight of stairs available for residents if they have to evacuate the building.
In New York, any building taller than 75 feet must have at least two stairwells encased in concrete to provide a safe escape route.
“It’s a basic thing of being able to get people out of the building,” said Gus Sirakis, an assistant commissioner at the building department. A backup route is needed in case one of the stairways is inaccessible or being used by firefighters, he said.
New York buildings over 420 feet must have a third flight of stairs.
The single escape route out of Dorney Tower has long worried residents.
Amal Salah, 45, who has lived there on the 15th floor for the past 11 years, said her family had been on edge since the Grenfell fire.
“We only have the main staircase,” Ms. Salah said. “So we just hope that nothing will happen.”
Missing fire doors
London fire officials found that Dorney Tower and other buildings in the same complex lacked working fire doors, and in some cases were missing them altogether. Without working fire doors to block a fire, flames can spread quickly from one part of a building to another.
New York City officials said that fire doors in all high rises must be self-closing and self-latching, and noted that they were regularly assessed.
“If our inspectors are called to the building for any reason, that is something we will inspect for,” Mr. Fariello said.
Experts say at least part of the reason Britain has less-strict fire codes is because business-friendly governments have pared back regulations.
A 2005 measure ended a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire codes and shifted to a system of self-policing.
“We have the developers on our back a lot, because they want to build, build, build,” Mr. Fariello said. “We are kind of in their way a lot to make these things safe.”