In the news · Word of the week

Word of the week: compartmentalization

Earlier this month, in preparation for this piece, I wrote about words ending in “-ize” and “-ization” and my preference for spelling them with a “z” rather than an “s”. All the quotes in this piece follow this preference rather than the house style of the publications that I have quoted from.

One of the first pieces I posted on this Blog, in the Compartments Menu here, mused on the word compartmentalization:

There may be some rule about compartmentalizing your life. Maybe people who compartmentalize their lives are happier and more successful than people who don’t. Or maybe the trick is to avoid compartmentalizing your life. Or maybe the significant thing is the number and type of compartments in your life. Whichever it is, my life seems to be divided into compartments. Some of my friends, or my small circles of friends, know me for one or two things, for things that I do or used to do, and have no idea of the other things going on in my life.

I concluded, “if I stumble across some magic formula about compartmentalization (all 20 letters and 7 syllables) I’ll let you know.” That was in December 2015 and I haven’t stumbled across any magic formula, but the word has come up many times in recent weeks following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.

Many thousands of words have been written about this disaster, and many more will follow. This piece from the Guardian in the immediate aftermath of the fire (“A disaster waiting to happen”) uses “compartmentalization” in relation to the external cladding, which caused the fire to spread much faster than it should have:

“The issue is about compartmentalization … Whatever cladding system you use, you have to incorporate fire stops at the line of each floorplate and every party wall around a dwelling to prevent fire from spreading up the facade.”

This didn’t happen at Grenfell Tower, and inside the building there was also inadequate “compartmentation”, to quote from this piece in the FT.

“The building regulations in place when Grenfell Tower was designed demanded generous space standards (which were abandoned by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1980) and made rigorously codified fire provision for escape and compartmentation. These had been eroded in the rebuilding of Grenfell Tower as more flats were squeezed in to increase accommodation.”

This piece in the Independent summarizes how the fire spread so quickly and suggests that many people died because the building was not well compartmentalized.

“Some residents … were told by emergency services over the phone to put towels around doors and stay put until help arrived. This advice has been known to work in buildings that are well compartmentalized, preventing the rapid spread of the fire from floor to floor. At Grenfell Tower, many who received this advice are likely to have died.”

I can offer you no universal rules about compartmentalization to help you to live a long, happy and healthy life but in the specifics of external cladding and the internal arrangement of tower blocks it looks like inadequate compartmentalization at Grenfell Tower contributed to the deaths of dozens of people. May they rest in peace.



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