Following the Grenfell Tower fire enquiry, architects must face up to their responsibility for Britain’s building safety crisis instead of blaming contracts that lessen their influence, writes Peter Apps.
It may not make national headlines anymore, but Britain is experiencing an ongoing building safety crisis. In the aftermath of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, thousands of other buildings have been found to have combustible materials on their walls or other serious fire safety issues. In a country with a longstanding reliance on telling people in burning buildings to “stay put” due to an inherent faith that the structure will contain the blaze, this is a major problem.
Untold numbers of people – likely in the tens or even hundreds of thousands – are suffering the financial and emotional consequences of living in homes that were built using unsuitable materials. Despite years of trying, the government has not been able to resolve the issue.
Whenever I speak to an architect, I am counting down until I hear the same thing
Whenever I speak to an architect about the situation, I am counting down in my head until I hear the same thing. A sage shake of the head and then a rhetorical question: “Well, do you know what the real problem is?” The answer: “design and build” contracts, which remove control from the architect on a project and place it in the hands of the lead contractor.
The logic is that designs are downgraded and materials switched by profit-hungry contractors with an eye on their margin. And this, if many, many architects are to be believed, is the root of all evil in the construction sector. Were we to put architects in a position of more influence, the problems would simply melt away.
The problem is, though, that this argument does not withstand contact with the reality of the building safety crisis.
Take Grenfell Tower. The public inquiry into the 2017 fire at this west London housing block that claimed 72 lives has recently concluded. It pulled apart, in forensic detail over two-and-a-half years, the construction job on a refurbishment project completed shortly before the blaze.
Like most UK public sector projects, Grenfell was made a design and build job after it was tendered in 2014, with Rydon coming on as lead contractor. Along with the client, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), Rydon did then make the fateful decision to switch to a cheaper cladding panel in order to reduce cost. That cladding panel has been identified as the “primary cause” of the rapid flame spread up Grenfell Tower.
So far, so in keeping with the theory about design and build. But this is only a small part of the story. In the case of Grenfell Tower, the primary way in which the cladding system designs were non-compliant with building regulations was that they used combustible insulation panels in a combination which had never been tested or approved.
Like most UK public sector projects, Grenfell was made a design and build job
And this decision sat squarely with the architects. Alongside engineering consultancy Max Fordham, architects Studio E chose to aim for an “aspirational” thermal efficiency target. This, they felt, could only be achieved with the use of plastic-foam insulation.
Celotex FR5000 was selected after a cursory Google search. Neither Studio E nor Max Fordham checked whether or not its fire performance made it suitable for a high-rise building. Both had seen it used on other jobs in the past and the architects had some loose, confused ideas about how plastic insulation “chars rather than burns” in the event of fire.
The inquiry has revealed that the manufacturer marketed this insulation product misleadingly for high-rise buildings, but that does not excuse the architects. They made the decision to use it before the misleading marketing was even released.
And while Bruce Sounes, the lead architect on the project, specified non-combustible zinc cladding, this had nothing to do with fire and everything to do with aesthetics. When he prepared the NBS specification for the job to be tendered, he included as an alternative the highly combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) that was ultimately used.
He had been nudged towards this product by the cladding sub-contractor and a salesperson for Arconic, the firm that sold it. But he made the decision without any checks into its fire performance. While it came with a certificate that suggested it had a Class 0 rating (the minimum required in building guidance), the fact that it had been linked to fires around the world was hardly a trade secret.
In fact, Sounes selected the cladding products with no thought to complying with the guidance. He did not even check to see what compliance involved, assuming without checking that such checks would be carried out by specialist sub-contractors or building control later on in the project. Asked at the inquiry about his role, he repeatedly said that his job was merely to ensure “architectural intent”, not safety or compliance.
Understanding how to reform the industry requires everyone in construction to look critically at their own role
All of these factors led lawyers acting for the bereaved and survivors to include the architects in a “primary” group of those responsible for the choice of the dangerous cladding in a “rogue’s gallery” presented as part of their closing statement to the inquiry. The contractors, sub-contractors and building control, for all their failures, made the secondary group.
This evidence should give architects pause for thought before asserting that the problem lies with design and build contracting, or that simply putting architects in charge would be an immediate solution to our problems.
The truth that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has presented is deeper and more sinister than that. It showed a construction sector that failed at every level: architects, clients, lead contractors, sub-contractors, consultants, building control, the messy web of companies which made, tested and sold the cladding products and the government department which wrote the regulations.
At each layer, there was a failure to properly consider compliance and safety and a lazy assumption that this responsibility lay with someone else in the chain. In the event, with everyone looking elsewhere this responsibility sat nowhere and safety simply fell by the wayside – a secondary concern to thermal efficiency, aesthetics and (above all else) cost.
Understanding how to reform the industry requires everyone in construction to look critically at their own role – not outside to others. In fact, that is precisely the attitude which led us here in the first place.
So no, putting architects in control will not, by itself, solve the problems that gave us the building safety crisis. At least not until architects, along with the rest of the industry, are able to face honestly the mistakes that led us here.
The photography is by Nat Barker.
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