CHICAGO (CBS) — It was a terrible and deadly high-rise fire in London. Now, the CBS 2 Investigators have discovered a Chicago building covered with the same type of flammable panels used on the London building. These panels are not supposed to be on Chicago high-rises.
Dave Savini investigates how they ended up here.
This is the River East Center in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. The 2 Investigators discovered the metal panels put on the building, to complete the exterior facade, is the same kind partially blamed for this summer’s rapidly spreading fire at London’s Grenfell Tower, which left 71 people dead. The metal panel is called Reynobond PE. PE stands for its combustible polyethylene core.
Judy Frydland, Commissioner of the Department of Buildings, confirmed Reynobond PE was used on River East Center and said, “Of course, it’s concerning.”
Frydland also said, “Under our code, that is not allowed.”
The polyethylene material will feed and quickly spread a fire – a real danger, warns the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which creates standards and codes for fire safety.
“It’s an untreated synthetic or plastic material that is going to generate a lot of heat,” said NFPA’s Robert Solomon. “It is going to burn very rapidly.”
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Reynobond PE can be used on buildings up to four stories, but not on Chicago high-rise buildings, which are harder to evacuate.
Despite city codes, the 2 Investigators found it was used all over River East Center’s 20-story hotel and 58-story condominium building. The complex also has a theater, bowling alley and numerous stores and a bank.
Now the question: How did it end up here? Frydland said no one has been able to figure out how this got approved back in 2002, or if it was ever even approved.
“No I can’t go back,” said Frydland. “The staff is gone. All the people involved in it are gone. So it’s impossible to go back.”
The 2 Investigators obtained a 2002 building permit change request – a possible clue to what went wrong. It says the exterior was going to be changed to metal, but gives no further details.
“When they submitted the changes, they called it composite metal panel and not Reynobond,” said Frydland.
She says the permit change request also failed to mention the metal panels would have a PE core, a combustible version of Reynobond. They could have used a different Reynobond called Reynobond FR, with a fire-retardant core. But it is more expensive, says experts.
“We understand that the PE material is about a dollar a square foot less than the FR material,” said Solomon.
The 2 Investigators also found a project report on the Web site of Alcoa Inc., which manufactured the Reynobond. It says the River East Center’s construction was not meeting deadline or budget expectations. So the exterior plans were changed to Reynobond, which helped the project get done early and with “significant cost savings”.
“You could not get it today under our code,” said Frydland.
Frydland says River East Center is very different from Grenfell Towers, and despite the metal panels, the complex meets other safety codes.
“The safety systems in the building are state of the art,” said Frydland.
Grenfell Towers only had one exit and no sprinklers. River East Center has sprinklers and smoke alarms on every floor, multiple stairways and emergency exits for people to get out in case of a fire.
“Right now, nobody sees an imminent danger,” said Frydland.
When asked if the metal panels may have to be taken off the building, Frydland said, “We’re just too early into all this right now. We need to do further investigation.”
This happened 15 years ago, under a different administration, which used an old paper system for permits and inspections. So the question remains, did someone at the Building Department approve the Reynobond PE, or was it put on the building without any approval?
“We have the plans from 2002, and the revision, but we no longer have the inspection records,” Frydland said about the city’s inability to see if anyone from the department signed off on the material.
Frydland said the three owners of River East Center have hired a fire protection expert to evaluate the building and submit a report to the city by the end of January.
We’ve reached out to the owners, and other businesses located at River East Center – only the hotel, Embassy Suites by Hilton commented. They said the complex received all required permits when it was built and it complies with the building code.
Arconic, the company now selling Reynobond PE, announced in June it will no longer sell it for high-rise buildings.