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HPL cladding system ‘dramatically fails’ test

31 March 2020

A HIGH pressure laminate (HPL) system tested by the Fire Protection Association (FPA) ‘dramatically failed’ a safety test, which had to be halted within eight minutes.

Inside Housing reported on the FPA BS 8414 test, with the HPL system tested ‘believed to be in use on hundreds of buildings’, and reported that the system ‘dramatically failed’ the test, with flames ‘ripping through a nine metre test rig in under eight minutes’. The system was composed of ‘standard grade’ HPL and phenolic foam, and was funded by the Metal Cladding and Roofing Manufacturers Association (MCRMA).

The test last week was halted ‘after just seven minutes and 45 seconds’ due to temperatures from the fire exceeding 700 degrees Celsius, with Inside Housing reporting that the test results suggest ‘that the system is almost as dangerous’ as the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding used on Grenfell Tower, which failed the same test in summer 2017 in ‘six minutes and 35 seconds’.

Describing the test, the news outlet pointed out that the fire ‘spread inconsistently’, with the fire ‘appearing relatively benign before suddenly ripping through the cladding system and causing an urgent termination’ of the test, with cladding panels forced to ‘ping out of their rivets’ and ‘rendering the fire barriers almost useless in slowing the spread’. The test was halted due to exceeding the pass/fail temperature threshold of 600 degrees Celsius, with the names of the specific brands used having ‘not been released’.

Inside Housing added that while the government has advised building owners to remove ‘standard-grade HPL’, it had ‘refused to fund’ removal until the £1bn funding announced in the budget this month, and had claimed ACM presented a ‘unique danger’ – refusing to ‘test this assertion’ and limiting testing to an HPL product ‘treated with fire retardants, which narrowly passed’ a test last year.

MCRMA technical committee chair Dr Jonathan Evans called in a letter to the government via the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) last year for standard grade HPL to be tested in the Grenfell testing programme begun in 2017, but the government had ‘flatly refused’, so this new test was funded ‘in order to demonstrate the serious danger posed’ by the material.

Standard grade HPL is ‘thought to be far more common’, with industry estimates of 85% of HPL on the market being standard grade, while a sales estimate the news outlet highlighted showed that 300,000 square metres of this material ‘are sold every year’. Its own research earlier in 2020 found that 91 buildings with HPL had been identified across England, but was only from the 1,612 of 12,000 high rises nationwide, industry data suggesting ‘at least’ 340 with ‘dangerous non-ACM’ cladding.

Inside Housing pointed out that ‘many of’ these will have used HPL, and added that it is ‘also likely to be in use on thousands of blocks below 18m’ that ‘still do not qualify for government remediation funding’ – while the material had ‘caused the external spread’ of fire at Lakanal House in 2009.

Dr Evans stated: ‘The foundation of the independent expert panel’s advice has been the “view” that [polyethylene-cored] ACM presents a unique danger despite there seemingly being no test evidence to support this. This is not ‘expert advice’ – it is little more than wishful thinking. You can’t hide forever how these materials perform.

‘From a fire and rescue perspective, the performance of a standard HPL system is practically the same as that of polyethylene-cored ACM – you’ve got just a few minutes to prevent a very serious fire from rapidly developing. Arguably, due to the higher fuel content, an HPL fire might be more difficult to fight than ACM due to the greater heat release rate.

‘There needs to be a big change in the way fire safety and protection guidance is developed and enforced by MHCLG. Successive secretaries of state have been advised by the same individuals who have presided over the regulatory mess and technical confusion that we now experience and they continue to make serious mistakes and misjudgements that put lives in danger.’

HPL cladding system ‘dramatically fails’ test