Northern Ireland

Cladding checked at four NI Housing Executive tower blocks

New Lodge tower blocks
Image caption Two of seven NIHE tower blocks in the New Lodge area of north Belfast have been refurbished with cladding

Cladding systems used on four blocks of high-rise flats in Belfast have been "rigorously tested" according to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

The social housing body is reviewing safety at all 32 of its tower blocks after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London raised concerns about cladding.

NIHE confirmed cladding was used during the refurbishment of Eithne House and Cuchulainn House in the New Lodge area.

Whincroft House and Carnet House in east Belfast are currently being clad.

'Extra reassurance'

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) said it has used two different systems to insulate the four Belfast towers but both systems were tested to British safety standards.

However, the housing body has arranged meetings with the manufacturers of the cladding "to receive extra reassurance".

The meetings are due to take place early next week.

Image copyright © Albert Bridge/CC Geograph
Image caption Carnet House in Dundonald is currently being refurbished with cladding

The NIHE carries out regular safety inspections at all 32 of its high-rise buildings but follow-up checks began on Wednesday in the aftermath of the London fire.

Its staff also held an emergency meeting with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service on Thursday afternoon to "ensure that we continue to meet our statutory obligations to ensure the safety of all those living in the tower blocks".

In a statement on Friday, the Belfast-housing body said: "It is too early to determine the cause of the fire in London and we will await the findings.

"If there are lessons to be learned from the investigation into this tragedy then those will be taken on board."

No sprinklers

It added that in the interim, NIHE staff have agreed to meet firefighters again in the coming weeks.

The housing body reassured its tenants that "their safety is taken extremely seriously".

It pointed out that all NIHE tower blocks have "fire-resistant" staircases, smoke alarms in communal areas and were designed with fire breaks on every floor.

However, sprinklers are not installed in any of NIHE's tower blocks.

"Our high-rises were built in the 1960s and 1970s without sprinklers. It is not a requirement of building control or fire regulations," the NIHE statement said.

Image copyright © Albert Bridge/CC Geograph
Image caption Whincroft House in the Braniel area of east Belfast, pictured before renovations

The housing body said the aim of fitting exterior cladding was to increase the lifespan of the tower blocks.

"The cladding system not only improves the thermal efficiency of the building but also provides protective outer skin to protect it from the elements."

Cladding has recently been completed at Eithne House and Cuchulainn House - two of seven tower blocks in the New Lodge, north Belfast.

The buildings have been covered with a "rainshield rainscreen system made up of PvC panels, with Rockwool insulation underneath".

"The system was tested by the Building Research Establishment to British Standard BR135," the NIHE statement said.

The same system is currently being used at the ongoing refurbishment of Whincroft House in the Braniel area of east Belfast.

A different system has been commissioned to refurbish Carnet House in Dundonald.

The NIHE said the Carnet House project is using a "BBA (British Board of Agrement) external wall insulation system which consists of 120 mms of fire retardant polysterene, covered with a 9mm reinforced plaster render".

It said this system has been tested to BS8414.

The four tower block renovation projects have each cost in excess of £1m.

In addition to cladding, the projects included the installation of new roofs, new windows, repairs to the existing concrete structures and improvements to balconies.

North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon said that since the London fire, a number of residents have contacted her with safety concerns.

She said she, in turn, raised those issues with NIHE and they had been acted upon.

"It isn't about scaremongering, but it's about quickly establishing the truth and the facts, and then learning lessons from that and acting swiftly," she told the BBC's Nolan Show.

The SDLP MLA welcomed the NIHE's review of its 32 tower blocks and a similar move by the Department of Health to check hospital buildings.

But Ms Mallon said her party was now calling for a "full assessment, in terms of safety and fire, of our public and private high-rise accommodation".

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