Baltimore Doesn't Know If Hotel Uses Combustible Panels

By Scott Calvert and Bob Tita Features Dow Jones Newswires

Arconic is formerly part of Alcoa, Inc. "Baltimore Doesn't Know If Hotel Uses Combustible Panels," at 6:53 p.m. ET on Monday, incorrectly stated in the seventh paragraph that Arconic was formerly part of Alcoa, Corp., which is the name of a spinoff from Alcoa, Inc.. (July 11)

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The company that made the combustible panels used on the London housing tower where a fast-moving fire killed at least 80 people says the same type wraps one of Baltimore's most prominent hotels: the 32-story Marriott Waterfront overlooking the city's Inner Harbor.

But Baltimore officials say they aren't sure what is on the hotel because they never asked the architects for details about the hotel's exterior panels. Two of the architects involved in the project, and its general contractor, also aren't sure or no longer have the records.

City officials say the use of such combustible panels would have complied with both the building code in place when construction of the hotel began in 1998, as well as the current code, and they said such panels are allowed when a building has sprinklers. But experts in U.S. fire-safety regulations raise questions about whether the panels would have passed muster, then or now.

The panels in question have cores made of polyethylene, a common variety of plastic derived from petroleum or natural gas that can be highly combustible.

For decades U.S. regulators have generally restricted metal composite panels on tall buildings unless they had fire-resistant cores. However, panels with polyethylene cores have been widely used in the U.K., including on London's recently refurbished Grenfell Tower, which went up in flames June 14.

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In an interview, Arconic Inc., which made the Grenfell Tower panels, declined to comment on whether the same panel type was used on the entire Marriott in Baltimore. "We sell our products with the expectation that they are used in a [wall] system that complies with local building codes and regulations," a company spokesman said.

On its website, Arconic, formerly part of Alcoa Inc., says the 750-room Marriott Waterfront used 83,000 square feet of the type of panel used on Grenfell Tower, marketed as Reynobond PE.

"At 23 feet each, these are the longest panels ever produced by Arconic Architectural Products," the website says.

Two of the architects involved in the Marriott's design said in interviews they don't recall what type of panels encase the hotel, located in the city's high-end Harbor East district. One, Peter Fillat, said he discarded the project file about six years ago following normal protocol.

Marriott International Inc. said it is working with the hotel building's owner to identify the type of cladding. "The safety and security of our guests and associates is a top priority," spokesman Jeff Flaherty said in an email.

The general contractor that built the hotel said the firm doesn't keep specifications on finished projects as old as the Marriott.

Aluminum composite panels first appeared in buildings in Europe in the 1970s and became popular in the U.S. during the 1980s. The panels gave architects a lightweight alternative to masonry and other materials.

From the start, though, U.S. safety engineers recognized the rigid cores sandwiched between two sheets of aluminum that gave the panels strength would easily burn during a fire.

"There's always been nervousness about putting combustibles on the outside of buildings," said Beth Tubbs, a senior staff engineer the International Code Council, which developed the model International Building Code in use across the U.S. since 2000. Most U.S. states and large cities, including Baltimore, routinely adopt the IBC into their local ordinances.

Building codes in the U.S. have mostly limited the use of composite panels with flammable cores to buildings no taller than 40 feet, or about the maximum reach for most firefighting equipment. Amendments to the code in recent years have allowed flammable panels to be used above 40 feet only under certain conditions and limits.

In the late 1990s, the Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association, a trade association, said in guidelines that wall assemblies that could pass a fire test could be installed on high-rises. But in the nearly 20 years since the standards were created, the only composite panels to pass have been those made with fire-retardant cores. Panels with polyethylene cores or foam insulation still haven't been certified for use in the U.S. above about 40 feet.

Baltimore officials said Friday they don't know what is on the Marriott Waterfront despite a permitting process that involves a multiagency review of construction plans and a series of inspections, including fire safety.

Tania Baker, a city spokeswoman, said Baltimore doesn't require developers to submit the names of specific building products and that it is "ultimately the architect's responsibility" to ensure those materials comply with the building code.

But Ms. Baker also said the use of polyethylene panels would have complied with the code in place when the hotel went through the approval process -- and would do so under the current code -- because the building had internal sprinklers as fire extinguishers.

She said the International Building Code has height limits for Reynobond PE panels "unless, as is the case here, the building is sprinklered."

However, nothing in the city's building code in place at the time of the Marriott's construction, nor in the current one, says the installation of sprinklers automatically negates the 40-foot limit, experts say.

The ICC's Ms. Tubbs said the 1990s-era building code required exterior panels to undergo heat and fire testing to determine whether and in what amounts they could be used on the structure, in addition to the required sprinklers in high rise buildings. It isn't clear whether such tests were done.

Ms. Tubbs said the IBC today allows metal composite panels on taller buildings if sprinklers are provided, but only if certain other criteria are met and if no more than 50% of a building has such cladding. Otherwise, she said, compliance with the fire-test standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association would be mandated, along with the use of thermal barriers.

Ms. Tubbs said she wasn't commenting specifically on Baltimore or any changes cities might have made to the code.

Robert Solomon, a division manager at the National Fire Protection Association, agreed that the building code used by the city at that time included a 40-foot limit for flammable panels as well as provisions subjecting panels to fire testing if they were used at higher elevations.

Douglas Evans, a consultant who retired as a fire-protection engineer for Clark County, Nev., said interior sprinklers can help keep a fire from reaching a building's exterior. But if the outside of a building catches fire due to an external source like a burning dumpster or car, "interior fire sprinklers will have no effect," he said.

Write to Scott Calvert at scott.calvert@wsj.com and Bob Tita at robert.tita@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 11, 2017 13:55 ET (17:55 GMT)