Hundreds of Israeli buildings ‘as vulnerable’ as London’s Grenfell Tower

Fire department says it has no idea how many high-rises are at risk; admits that even if it finds dangerous materials, there is nothing it can do

A fire burns in Haifa, Israel, Thursday, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A fire burns in Haifa, Israel, Thursday, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Numerous buildings across Israel are potentially as vulnerable as London’s Grenfell Tower — a residential high-rise where a June 14 fire killed at least 79 people, The Times of Israel has been told.

British police have said the Grenfell Tower fire — the worst in Britain in over a century — was spread by flammable materials in the building’s façade, and indicated that prosecutions for manslaughter may ensue. Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority said there may be hundreds of buildings nationwide that are similarly vulnerable, but that it has no idea how many there are. And even if it were able to establish which buildings are at risk, it is not empowered to do anything to alleviate the danger.

Indeed, just last year, despite strong opposition from the fire department, the Israeli government amended the building code to loosen the country’s already lax regulations and allow certain construction projects to use the same flammable material suspected to have been a major factor in the deadly London blaze.

Amid a national UK operation to identify buildings with insulation paneling akin to the 24-story Grenfell Tower, which has so far seen the evacuation of some 650 London apartments in other buildings deemed unsafe, Israeli officials admitted to The Times of Israel that dangerous loopholes exist in the country’s own fire safety regulations. Those loopholes bear striking similarities to questionable practices currently under scrutiny in Britain.

In June last year, a small fire broke out in an apartment in a multistory building in Ramat Gan, quickly spreading along the exterior and climbing up to other floors. Twenty-eight firefighting crews battled the blaze for over five hours as it consumed apartments on 10 floors on the south side of the building and spewed burning debris onto the street below, destroying several cars. Dozens of residents and workers in the joint apartment-office building were treated for smoke inhalation after they were rescued from the building using ladders and cranes.

A fire rages in a 15-story apartment building in Ramat Gan, June 13, 2016. (Screen capture: Channel 2)
A fire rages in a 13-story apartment building in Ramat Gan, June 13, 2016. (Screen capture: Channel 2)

The fire likely would not have been able to spread the way it did if it were not helped by flammable insulation paneling lining the building’s exterior. According to the fire department, it was the same paneling that contributed to the Grenfell inferno. The polythene composite panels, found in both buildings, have been widely blamed for the rapid spread of the London fire.

A source in the Haifa Municipality, who asked to remain unnamed, told The Times of Israel that an apartment building in the city that caught alight during a rash of wildfires that spread across Israel last November also used similar material in its insulation panels. The fire department, however, said investigations of that fire did not show the use of any prohibited materials and no polythene residue was found at the site.

Experts point to loopholes in construction inspections that allow those renovating buildings to use cheaper, non-flame-resistant material, putting apartment-dwellers at risk of fires spreading from apartment to apartment.

On Thursday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said that some 600 buildings in the UK may have been fitted with flammable external panels like the ones believed to have contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire. By Sunday, officials said 60 buildings in 25 areas were found to be unsafe, and that all buildings checked thus far had failed safety tests.

The cladding in the Grenfell Tower is an aluminum and plastic composite — polythene. It was used in hundreds of Reynobond panels which were fitted to the outside of the London high-rise last year. Made by a firm of the same name, Reynobond panels come in three types – one with a flammable polythene core and two with fire-resistant centers.

Police man a security cordon as a huge fire engulfs the Grenfell Tower in West London, June 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Daniel Leal-Olivas)
Police man a security cordon as a huge fire engulfs the Grenfell Tower in West London, June 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Daniel Leal-Olivas)

As in Britain, building regulations in Israel prohibit the use of the polythene Reynobond panels (Reynobond PE) during initial construction, but loopholes have allowed for it to be used unchecked in some cases during renovations, where contractors are specifically looking to cut costs.

A simple internet search shows that Reynobond panels have been used in projects all over the country, including in massive residential and corporate construction projects in Haifa, Rehovot, Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Petah Tikva. The company declined repeated requests from The Times of Israel to disclose which type of panel had been used at those sites.

Reynobond representatives for both the international office and the Israel distributor also declined to comment on which type of materials the company provides to Israel and whether the company has ever imported the controversial Reynobond PE panels.

The Standards Institution of Israel, which is responsible for testing and certification of all products used in Israeli building projects, could not confirm testing Reynobond PE and said that specific results were not public information. The Times of Israel has submitted a formal request under the Freedom of Information Law for details of companies that asked for certification for the panels, as well as the full results of the SII’s tests on them.

Bad practices, lax regulations

According to Haim Tamam, head of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services Safety and Investigations department, it is impossible to estimate how many buildings in Israel may have been renovated using the dangerous and non-approved paneling material. There could be hundreds, he acknowledged uncomfortably, saying that under the current conditions certain buildings were “as vulnerable” as Grenfell Tower.

Haim Tamam, head of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services Safety and Investigations department. (Courtesy)
Haim Tamam, head of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services Safety and Investigations department. (Courtesy)

“We have strict legislation for when contractors plan and begin construction. They must present their blueprints to us for two separate full reviews,” Tamam said. “There are strict regulations on flammable materials for both the interior and exterior of any structure. And the taller the building, the more strict the regulations get.”

Without permission from the fire department, including confirmation that all construction materials are approved, contractors cannot get permission to begin.

But once a building has already been built, Tamam said, it is more complicated to oversee changes made during renovations.

In Tel Aviv, a city of high-rises, for example, changes to the exterior of a building such as adding insulation panels require the permission of the fire department. “A request of this sort must be reviewed by the fire department as a condition for granting the permit, in accordance with regulations,” said a spokesperson for the Tel Aviv municipality. “As part of the request review, the fire department demands that all of these materials be fire resistant according to regulations.”

The municipality spokesperson added that in order for a building to receive a building completion certificate, the fire department runs an additional check to ensure that all of the permit requirements were implemented.

But, in a similar complaint to one made by UK fire services, Tamam said the fire department has almost no agency to check on its own that further changes and renovations to the building continue to meet standards. It can only do so upon the request of the municipality.

And Tamam said that according to the current legislation, while municipalities are formally required to submit renovation plans to the fire department, municipalities are technically able to grant permits against the recommendation of his department, and many have. “There have been cases where municipalities have not accepted our recommendations and renovations have fallen through the cracks,” he said.

Once that happens, he said, its nearly impossible for the fire department to know if questionable materials have been used and in some cases, it only finds out after a fire. One such example was the Ramat Gan blaze. “We didn’t know beforehand but it became clear very quickly that we were dealing with this sort of panel,” Tamam said.

Tel Aviv skyscrapers (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Tel Aviv skyscrapers (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Even if the fire department were to discover a building that used the dangerous paneling, there is nothing it could do to have those panels removed, Tamam said. “Who will force contractors to take it down? Who will pay for it? Who will do the work?” These questions, among others, have no clear answers in the current law, he warned.

Furthermore, in 2016, the Finance Ministry introduced changes to fire-safety laws, removing any requirement whatsoever for a fire department review of renovations to buildings under 50 meters high or “cuboid shaped” buildings up to 100 meters.

“The changes codified the bad practices,” Tamam said, adding that the fire department highlighted the dangers of such legislation to the Finance Ministry and expressed its strong opposition to the change, but to no avail.

Dror Levinger, director of the regulations in the Finance Ministry’s Planning Authority, which oversaw the changes, said that they were instituted “to ease the process and remove bureaucratic red tape,” and were signed upon by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Ze’ev Lavi, the chief sales manager for Myko Engeneering, an Israeli distributor of composite materials who insists his company only sells strictly fireproof products, said the loopholes have allowed some of his competitors to import dangerous materials.

“Some people just don’t care,” he said. “Regulations have improved, but those that want to get around them can, and will.”

Members of the emergency services work on the middle floors of the charred remnains of the Grenfell Tower block in Kensington, west London, on June 17, 2017, follwing the June 14 fire at the residential building. ( AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN)
Members of the emergency services work on the middle floors of the charred remains of the Grenfell Tower building in Kensington, west London, on June 17, 2017, following the June 14 fire. ( AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN)

Yisrael David, acting head of the Association of Engineers in Israel and its representative on the government body overseeing infrastructure safety, pointed to a number of other loopholes prevalent in Israeli construction practice that, if closed, could help prevent large scale fires.

David said that there should be more oversight on smaller construction projects, which often don’t face the same scrutiny as high-rise projects. “The same process of receiving permits and official checks does not happen in small-scale construction,” he said. In addition, while David contended that regulation for exterior materials is relatively strong, he said that “there are nearly no regulations for what can be used on the interior of a building.”

David said he believed Israel has come a long way in the field and, on the whole, was well placed to prevent mass disasters such as Grenfell. But he acknowledged more could be done.

“I can’t imagine that a similar tragedy could happen in Israel,” David said. “But then again, I couldn’t imagine such a thing in London either.”

‘More widespread as buildings age’

Upgrading external cladding is one of the changes that architects and contractors can use to improve the appearance of older buildings and make them more energy efficient. Other changes include improving the thermal insulation in a building’s roof or adding shade or awnings to windows.

Professor Evyatar Erell, part of the Desert Architecture and Urban Planning department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, estimated that “climatization” — heating or cooling — accounts for 25 to 33 percent of the energy consumed in residential buildings. Finding ways to maximize efficiency in keeping the building hot or cold can contribute to significant energy savings, he noted.

“When we have better thermal insulation in buildings between the interior and the exterior, we use less energy because it stays warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer,” said Erell. “If you imagine a bucket with holes in it, when there are more holes, you need to keep putting water in the bucket. When you heat a building and there are ‘holes’ in the insulation, you need to be constantly filling the building up with heat.”

“In new buildings, walls are often built to higher standards to begin with, reducing heat losses, but in older buildings, especially from the 70s, the thermal insulation was not as good.”

Illustrative photo of a Jerusalem construction site. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a Jerusalem construction site. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although wall cladding has currently captured the headlines, in Israel more energy efficiency can be gained by improving the thermal insulation in the roof, a process that is less costly than adding cladding to a building’s sides. That is because in most of Israel, buildings experience more extreme temperatures in the summer, so the thermal insulation needs to be adapted to isolate buildings from the heat.

Hilly northern Israel and Jerusalem are more like England, with thermal insulation focused on isolating from the cold in winter.

Erell added that exterior cladding retrofit, as was done in the Grenfell apartments in London, is less common in Israel. “I think it will be much more widespread in the future as buildings age,” he said. “Most of the buildings in Israel are still fairly young.”

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