Grenfell Tower

GRENFELL TOWER – NOW IS THE TIME FOR MEANINGFUL CHANGE

Since 2011, I have written numerous blog entries on skills in the construction industry, written a book that largely focuses on the same topic, and given illustrated public talks about the need to improve skills in the construction industry. I have taken many of these opportunities to deplore the greed of some developers and design-and-build contractors, and to lament the rampant, and widespread apathy and lack of care for others. My view is that there is insufficient concern within the construction industry, for the interests of building users, for the wider public, and the wider environment (which Architects, as licenced professionals, are bound to protect). Some of what has been going on, amounts, in my personal view, to potentially fall into the category of criminal negligence. The lack of skills in the UK construction industry is the result of years of inaction by various parties, including by those who have the power and responsibility to regulate the system and to pay for systems that will keep people safe.

It is too early of course to say what exactly happened at the Grenfell Tower, and why, but from all the stories and complaints reported so far (including residents repeatedly raising concerns over fire safety), it appears to me that there is likely to be more than a single cause of this tragic incident, and there may indeed from the stories of survivors, be multiple failures to be accounted for. This catastrophe clearly should never have happened, and I endorse the RIBA President’s call for a meaningful Public Inquiry to explore this rigorously. It is imperative that the inquiry explores whether sufficient checks and balances in the system could have helped to prevent this incident. I was pleased to hear this afternoon that the Prime Minister has made the decision to implement one.

Lessons should have been learned from other serious fires in tall residential blocks in recent years, in London and Southampton, and if the recommendations arising from them had been implemented at Grenfell Tower, such as the instruction to get out of the building in the event of a fire, rather than to stay inside, the loss of life may have been smaller; and if the local authority had observed the recommendations of these reports, endorsed in a letter by Sir Eric Pickles to all local authorities to fit sprinkler systems in all tall buildings, new and existing, then it is likely that the fire would have been contained, and the loss of life and serious injury could have been prevented.

Questions should also be asked as to the motivation for the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower. Is it too cynical to ask if the chief motivation for the work was to improve the appearance of the tower, thereby increasing the value of the multi-million pound houses in the vicinity? Is this why funding for re-cladding was found, while funding for a sprinkler system was not found?

There have also been reports about the possibility that the fire was started by a faulty appliance. In the UK, social housing landlords do not normally provide kitchen appliances such as ovens and hobs, washing machines, or tumble driers. Tenants, many of them deeply impoverished, are expected to bring and install their own appliances. From what I have seen, these are generally second-hand and of poor quality. The thought of a tenant who might have any kind of disability, installing their own gas cooker in a multi-occupancy building is terrifying to me, and surely, on health and safety grounds alone, there should be a requirement for landlords to provide and install such equipment before a tenant moves in, as is the case in Germany, I understand.

Questions should also be asked why two of Rydon’s subcontractors went into liquidation at the start of the project, and what were the consequences on the profit margins of what is likely to have been a fixed-price contract? In the event of financial and time issues, was there a reduction in the quality of the build to maintain contractor profit margins, or the council’s costs?

It’s not a question of ‘if’ there are lessons to be learned (as Mrs. May put it); clearly there are lessons to be learnt.

It’s obviously too early to jump to any detailed conclusions, but I think a public enquiry should be set up urgently, and be prepared to respond meaningfully, and all of the building industry should be ready to be a party to change, including our professional body, the RIBA, which, apart from retweeting Jane Duncan’s tweet, has been totally silent on the disaster until some pressure was applied on them today. The RIBA’s response so far has been inadequate and insensitive. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster of this nature, I feel that it was extraordinarily insensitive for the RIBA to issue a tweet  this morning about a completely non-related item titled “clay brick and concrete Mexican house is set around a cactus tree”.

The Grenfell Tower seems to have been delivered by means of a contractor-led ‘design-and-build’ contract. In a drive towards short term financial savings, and the scaling back of the skills within local authority organisations, public bodies have become increasingly reliant on outsourcing, and doing so to the lowest bidder. This raises the question as to whether the lowest bidder can deliver a project to the same standard as one would expect from a public works project.

This short-termist and lazy economic thinking has led to the construction industry being largely overtaken by this form of procurement, with government agencies and developers jumping on the bandwagon, while everyone is aware of the huge skills gap in the construction industry. I have been saying for some time that I can only conclude, from the reports I receive from reliable sources, that there is criminal negligence going on in the construction industry, with greedy, uncaring contractors looking chiefly to gain the maximum short-term profits, even when this is at the cost of everyone else.  At the same time, the level of scrutiny being applied has been dramatically reduced through the use of privatised checking agencies, that are often employed by the contractor, with an obvious conflict of interest when it comes to providing the certificates that the contractor demands.

Only last week, I shared these views with a senior council building control officer, and we discussed the potential for corruption of building control services, since private companies have now been allowed to take on this role in competition with publicly funded building control, paid for by the contractor who wants a pass certificate in return for the payment. I understand that in this case, the RBKC Building Control service was involved in checking Grenfell Tower. However, I would question whether the opportunities that such an inspector has, to either understand or spot the potential threat of defective design or construction, is limited in the context of underfunding for this important role; particularly where the officer has no opportunity to collaborate with an independent professional architect, as would be the case in a traditional building contract. The loss of the independent architect results in the loss of a key component of quality control. If a contractor employs an architect to check the construction of a building, but with no legal power to issue contract instructions, there is an obvious loss of independent control over the nature of the works, if not even, the creation of another conflict of interest.

To maintain an adequate level of quality control, skilled, concerned, design professionals should, in my view, run contracts in the traditional way, with the power to instruct changes where they see faulty works. However, the Thatcher government successfully straight-jacketed the role of professionals, and handed control to contractors, and this has not been reversed by subsequent governments. With contractor led design-and-build contracts, architects mostly now have no power to instruct contractors. It continues to be astonishing to me that government has accepted that contractors are in charge, employing architects and giving them instructions, or shutting them out if they are too ‘difficult’. Architects mostly wring their hands but feel powerless and go along with all this. I have refused to do so, and have never been involved in a design-and-build contract because I have persuaded all our clients against this; even local authority councils have, in our case, allowed us to control the quality of the detailing in design and on site because we have managed to show them the benefits of a traditional building contract to carry quality assurance through to the construction and completion phases of the project.

Perhaps it’s time that the RIBA sought to take leadership in this matter; to start putting together the framework of a major RIBA report that will assist the government to bring about change; putting people’s lives in front of contractor profits?

It is of course right to point out that architects make mistakes; indeed, everyone does, and none of us are perfect. That’s exactly why we need systems that are designed to prevent or find problems that might otherwise cause suffering at one scale or another; and can anyone seriously claim that design-and-build contracts provide sufficient checks and balances? Design-and-build contracts remove many of the safeguards, therefore exposing government, users the public, and the environment, to risk of harm from poor quality or unscrupulous contractors.

It’s the fact that many people and organisations have willingly participated in a ‘rush to the bottom’ in terms of cost, resulting in dramatic reductions in quality and value and safety, while ensuring that their financial returns are maximised, that is to be deplored. Since I began my training as an architect, I have seen traditional construction firms almost disappear and be replaced by financial organisations with managers that are unfit for purpose, and skills that are bought in, only as and when necessary to complete a specific building task, as profitably as possible; and good subcontractors tell me that they often aren’t even paid fully for their work. At the same time, architecture has moved from a community service, to a business opportunity, grabbing at any opportunity to make money, regardless of the sanity or morality of the brief, and as architectural practices have become the glorified ‘curtain dressers’ of the construction industry, the opportunity for young architects to learn the skills they need to detail buildings properly has been lost, to the frustration of many of them.

There are reports of numerous complaints about the Grenfell Tower building before this tragedy occurred, and much of this appears to have been directed at the arm’s length organisation that effectively privatised the council’s maintenance and procurement arm, and there are complaints about the way the construction works were carried out, even including that gas pipes were not properly encased to protect them in the event of a fire. I am wondering why on earth gas pipes were not encased, despite complaints about this, and why a flammable cladding material was used on the facades? I also wonder what consideration was given to fire breaks to stop fire spreading up the cladding. I have previously spoken repeatedly about the absurd and common practice of creating a ventilated cavity between a building structure and its external insulation. This not only renders the insulation completely useless, but it creates a potential route for the spread and intensification of fire.

I have been so concerned about this that on one occasion, seeing such an installation being applied to a tall building that I was passing by in East London, I called the Local Authority Building Control Department. Eventually I got to speak to an officer who said that building was being looked after by a private building control company. I asked him, if it was one of his projects, would he consider this acceptable? His reply is another indication of the state of the construction industry: “I don’t know. I’m a Building Control Manager, not a Building Control Officer.” I then tried to speak to the private building control company, but got nowhere. I also tried to speak to those in charge of regulating Building Control requirements, and again got nowhere. Nobody seemed to be in a position of responsibility.

Complaints about the safety of the Grenfell Tower building, and stark warnings, are reported to have come from all sorts of sources, and specifically mentioned the risk of a tragic fire. For Teresa May to say “if there are any lessons to be learnt…” (as if to say that there may not be) is indication of how out of touch she is. For Rydon Construction’s first response to be “the project met all required building regulations and handover took place when the completion notice was issued by the Department of Building Control, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea”, despite what has happened, is deeply worrying.

I suggest that architects and the RIBA don’t also try to prop up a rotten system with excuses. Now is the time for meaningful change, and RIBA should not stand by in silence, with just one single tweet since the tragedy, by means of a retweet of the RIBA President’s call for a public enquiry and then going on to insensitively tweet about other unrelated matters.

One RIBA officer has responded to my prompts by telling me something that appears potentially very significant:

“I read in the German media that fire safety regulations in Germany prohibit the use of inflammable insulation material for buildings higher than 22m, which apparently is not the case in the UK and France (possibly other countries).

And evacuation in tall buildings has to be ensured via the provision of two separate staircases that are structurally and mechanically and electrically, completely separate from the rest of the building, and so prevented from the ingress of smoke. Though that's probably not always the case for older buildings either. I don't know if regulations in the UK in that respect are more lax, or whether they are equally strict but were not implemented here.”

I have asked the RIBA if anyone is actively employed at this important point, to carry out useful research like this, in order that a considered and meaningful statement is made by RIBA very soon. But haven’t had a response to this question, and I’m not hopeful of a positive response.  In the meantime, there is no open forum for debate on the RIBA website, so anyone would think that the professional architects that constitute the RIBA membership don’t care.

We should all be angry at this terrible and needless loss of life, injury, and the deep ongoing hurt that will be felt by families and loved ones. We should be determined to make sure that we continue to apply pressure to bring about change, so that a tragedy like this never happens again. I don’t think the public, quite rightly, is going to be happy with anything less.

 

 

Justin Bere, 

15th June, 2017

 

Justin Bere

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The need for an inquest should take precedent over the need for an inquiry. That will ensure due legal process is maintained. There may be criminal proceedings following a coroners inquest. ( Lesson learned from Hillsborough disaster)
Alan thank you for your care to make this important point.