It’s the chronicle of a tragedy foretold. And in flames.

The unique and world-renowned Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art is badly damaged in a 2014 fire where there are no sprinklers to combat it and it is quickly spread through flammable and antiquated ducting. Four years later, it is almost totally destroyed in an inferno where, again, there are no sprinklers and where cheap and combustible insulation materials are fitted, ending in what firefighters term a fireball.

The second fire to the building, known as “the Mack” was, almost to the hour, a year after flames tore through the cladding and insulation on the exterior of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower and into homes where 72 people died. The Mack, with some of the same flammable materials, perished on June 15, 2018, fortunately with no loss of life. In the aftermath, as in the first fire, no-one in the art school management took responsibility.

Muriel Gray, chair of the GSA’s board of governors since 2013, announced a few days ago that she was stepping down from the role, with no apologies or mea culpas, no contrition or humility, just the same arrogant dismissal of criticism of her over the two fires. In a self-serving and valedictory interview with The Times, she said: “If I thought poor governance or poor management had led to either fire, I would go, ‘Yeah’, but it just didn’t.”

The Herald: Gray and red

This does not square with what several former senior GSA staff have said. Eileen Reid, former head of widening participation at the GSA, told a Holyrood committee: “Anyone who worked in the art school – I defy anyone to say otherwise – knew that the building was a risk. We all knew it. We used to talk about how many minutes we would have to get out.

“It was precarious, given 100 years of – not abuse – but the way that the building was used and the presence of flammable materials and the rest.”

On May 23, 2014, it was later proved, the heat from a projector ignited gases from a foam canister and set off the fire which ripped through the old building. Six months later, on the day before the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service issued a report on the cause of it, the GSA put out a press release in what was clearly an attempt to selectively spin the story, including that a “student’s art project caused the blaze”.

The blame game

It was true, up to a point. What was missing was this damning paragraph from the next day’s fire report: “An area to the left of the projector had panels removed allowing access for ongoing maintenance. This timber-lined void acted like a chimney and allowed flames, hot gases and smoke to travel vertically.”

A sprinkler system would almost certainly have prevented the fire spreading. There wasn’t one. In oral evidence to the Holyrood committee, Gray said about their lack: “We were not permitted to use a standard sprinkler system because it was a Grade A-listed building that contained Mackintosh artefacts and things that would have been destroyed by water.The only alternative was a mist suppression system. It was relatively new, but it was the best alternative and it was approved by Historic Environment Scotland as being safe to use.”

Although it was never installed.

Barbara Cummins, director of heritage at Historic Environment Scotland, responded on advice given by HES.

“We cannot think of an instance in which we have advised against a suppression system, compartmentation or other measure appropriate for fire safety and said that it should not be allowed in a historic building,” she said. “However, we cannot compel someone to do something in a timely manner.”

In August 2018, two months after the second Mack fire, I wrote in the Sunday Herald that flammable insulation, of a similar type so fatally fixed to the outside of Grenfell, was used in the Mack. It included 100mm polyisocyanurate, or PIR, a rigid plastic foam between two sheets of aluminium foil. “The PIR is flammable with the foil designed to stop it catching fire. The underlay on the roof was an air and vapour permeable product called Roofshield which is also flammable.”

PIR was then half the price of non-flammable and mineral products like glass wool or rock wool, made from recycled glass and strands of rock.

The Herald: Edward Rayner, an archaeologist with Kirkdale Archaeology pictured in the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art. Forensic archaeologists have started to sift through the remains of the Mack library after a fire devastated the building in May 201

Toxic fumes

THIS type of cheaper insulation also gives off toxic gases, including hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, when set alight. Some of the Grenfell fire victims were treated with antidotes to the toxic fumes, while others who died might have been incapacitated by them.

Five months after the second Mack fire, Dr Jim Glockling, technical director of the Fire Protection Association, pointed out: “Measuring smoke toxicity in building products is currently not a legal requirement. The dangers of cladding fires using flammable synthetic composites are long established. In 1991, it was a key factor in the fire that destroyed an apartment block in Knowsley Heights, Liverpool.

On New Year’s Eve 2016, a huge fire ripped through Dubai’s luxury Address Downtown Hotel, a 72-storey tower that stands opposite the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The Downtown blaze followed fires at two other landmark Dubai buildings, the Marina Torch and Tamweel Tower. The 86-storey Torch Tower also went up.

Failed fire tests

LEAKED test results emerged last month which suggest the Government and construction industry had early evidence of the dangers posed by these kind of panels. In 2004, 14 years before the second Mack fire, 10 unnamed systems failed a fire resistance test.

One was carried out on a material described as “aluminium-based cladding panels”, similar to that used at Grenfell and the Mack, which was terminated after 12 minutes, with temperatures exceeding 900°C. It was the most catastrophic failure of the 10 tested. The second Mack fire burned with unprecedented ferocity. Once again there was no sprinkler system in the £35 million renovation, although it is claimed that one was days away from being fitted. Fire alarms also failed to function. It was neighbours and passers-by who noticed the smoke and flames and alerted the fire brigades.

There is no suggestion that any of the material used in the renovation of the Mack breached any building regulations or British Standards. The question is whether the regulations are fit for purpose.

Neither it is suggested that Muriel Gray had any expert knowledge of building methods. The criticism is that she and the GSA management were both inept and deficient, as several former senior members of staff have claimed, including Gordon Gibb, director of professional studies at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. He was sacked on the spot last year for breach of contract in making those criticisms and calling for an inquiry.

Gray has now stepped down, claiming she wanted “to take the machine gun fire, so they stop aiming at the GSA”. The long-awaited fire service report on the second Mack fire is likely to be published later this year. Whether she is again back in the firing line remains to be seen.