Ronan Point was a 22-storey tower block in Canning Town, Newham, East London. It was built as part of the post-war regeneration plan which needed to rebuild the city after wartime bombing and create thousands of new homes and was commissioned by Newham Borough Council for just £500,000. Construction began in 1966 and it was sold as affordable and quick pre-fabricated housing which was able to solve the city’s housing problem. It was built by Taylor-Woodrow Anglican, using the Larsen-Nielsen/Large Panel System method of building which involved creating large concrete panels off-site and then slotting and bolting them together to form the structure on site, saving time and resources. Construction was completed in March 1968 and residents moved in. This new style of tower block represented modernity and the rebirth of the country after the devastation of war. Due to the Housing Act of 1956, there was an incentive for local councils to build increasingly tall tower blocks; local governments received subsidies for high rise buildings over six storeys.
In the early morning of 16th May 1968 one of the residents on the 18th floor of the building lit a match in order to make her morning cup of tea which sparked an explosion due to a gas leak in a newly installed cooker. As part of the construction of Ronan Point and many other identical, pre-built tower blocks, each floor was supported by the load-bearing walls directly below it. The gas explosion knocked the resident that lit the match unconscious, but she survived.
There were four fatalities, a number which could be significantly higher if the incident had happened at any other time. Most residents were still asleep in their bedrooms at this time, but the explosion caused only the living room side of the block to collapse and left most of the bedrooms intact, apart from those on floors 17-22. The fatalities all occurred on these levels. Initially, the explosion only affected floors 18-22, but the enormous amount of pressure put upon the lower floors by the weight of these floors collapsing then caused a second wave of the incident where the floors below gave way.
Four people were killed and seventeen people injured in the disaster.
In the aftermath, the southeast corner of Ronan Point was rebuilt as a separate section of apartments joined to the existing building via walkways. The building wa s reinforced with blast angles and gas was banned from the block.
Due to public pressure, a government inquiry was conducted into how and why the Ronan Point disaster happened. Both the design and the poor construction of the building were found to be at fault. The explosion was not found to be significant in magnitude; the 18th floor resident’s hearing was not damaged and items from the kitchen were taken for testing which confirmed this. The report concluded that the collapse of Ronan Point was due to the lack of structural integrity. The design did not incorporate fail-safe mechanisms and did not provide an alternative load path for the upper floors should a lower floor give way.
It concluded that the Larsen-Nielson system of building had been extended so far beyond its intended six storeys that it was extremely unsafe. High winds were also found to be an issue as the building was not adequately reinforced to withstand high wind speeds. According to plans and building codes, it was designed to withstand wind speeds of 63mph, however, speeds of up to 100mph could be predicted at least once within the alleged sixty year life span of the building.
The explosion and the government inquiry into the causes of the disaster led to increasing public distrust in high rise buildings. In 1967, no less than 470,000 new flats and houses had been completed - a number which worried those who would be living in them after the disaster in May 1968.
For much of the public high rise, and other new style buildings, became to represent the government’s regeneration plans in which they distrusted. In many ways, the explosion confirmed these worries and many became increasingly uneasy about leaving their tight knit communities for high rise flats. Understandably, many residents did not wish to return to their flats at Ronan Point, but these families were left ‘very lonely and very scared’.
After finding continuing serious structural flaws despite the reinforcements put in place after the partial collapse, architect Sam Webb continued to campaign for the demolition of the building. In 1986 the campaigns were successful and Ronan Point, along with other high rise buildings on the Freemasons Estate were demolished.
Cynthia Pearson & Norbett Delatte, ‘Ronan Point Apartment Tower Collapse and its Effect on Building Codes’ (2005)
Martin Pawley, Terminal Architecture
Tony McGrath for the Observer at https://www.theguardian.com/society/from-the-archive-blog/gallery/2018/may/16/ronan-point-tower-collapse-may-1968
The Guardian, 17th May 1986 at https://www.theguardian.com/society/from-the-archive-blog/gallery/2018/may/16/ronan-point-tower-collapse-may-1968