Architect and activist whose expertise on high-rise safety – from panels to fire – famously began with a tenacious study of Ronan Point and a successful campaign to dismantle it
Sam Webb was an architect, teacher and activist – a champion for justice who will be best remembered for his remarkable, relentless pro bono work as a campaigner for high-rise safety.
Webb graduated from the Polytechnic of North London in 1962, going on to work at Camden Council architects department under Sydney Cook. Six years later the newspapers reported the fatal collapse at Ronan Point, a tower block in Newham, London, which had been completed just two months earlier.
‘I was reminded’, Webb recalled, ‘of those old Hulton Press pictures of paperboys proclaiming the sinking of the Titanic, the Wall Street Crash or the outbreak of war. Each carried banner headlines. “Why? Why? Why?”, proclaimed the Evening Standard.’ Appalled by what he saw, Webb set out to answer that question through dedicated investigative work that continued after he took a teaching post at Canterbury College of Art (1975-1996), and continued into old age.
After a public inquiry and patchwork repairs to Ronan Point it was judged safe for residents to return, but Webb was unconvinced. Over ensuing years he researched the deficiencies of the factory-made, large-panel-system industrialised designs that had come to dominate building contracts. In the 1980s, he worked with tenants to lobby for Ronan Point to be re-examined. His survey of the block was seismic. He found gaps as wide as a hand where panels were bowing and poorly joined. Wind lifted tenants’ carpets, their fish-tanks’ waterlines were lopsided, and they could smell food cooking in flats below.
Webb’s report refuted the inquiry’s insistence that the risk of fire through joint failure was ‘remote’, leaving Newham Council no choice but to evacuate the block in 1984. Supervising its dismantling, Webb found its joints had been packed with tin cans, old cement bags, newspapers and cigarette packets. One such piece of newspaper was dated 1972: packed during the retrospective ‘strengthening’. Sam told me: ‘Ronan Point is not just a building, it’s a metaphor for the political system we live in.’ He was daring, outspoken, and driven by a white-hot sense of justice.
He continued to battle over defects in large-panel-system blocks across Britain into the 1990s. He gave workshops about identifying structural defects at tenant conferences using a large wooden model (held by RIBA) to demonstrate the faulty placement of joints in large-panel systems. ‘So’, he explained, ‘when some pompous engineer or housing officer came and told them their home was as safe as houses, they would innocently ask if he knew how the V3 joint was put together. That took the wind out of his sails.’
Webb was an expert witness advising families of the victims of the Lakanal House fire in 2009, and active in the Grenfell fire investigation in his eighties, as a founder member of the RIBA’s Fire Safety Expert Advisory Group and an advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Fire and Rescue Group. In 2018, he co-launched Tower Blocks UK to help high-rise residents lobby over safety concerns.
His critical role in advancing the cause of safety, and long run as a member of the RIBA Council, were acknowledged by an MBE for services to architecture in 2021. He will also be remembered for his enormous warmth and empathy; he took ordinary people’s concerns seriously when few others would. He was a gripping storyteller, with a prodigious memory and a terrific sense of humour.
He is survived by three daughters, Rachel, Hannah, and Sarah, and six grandchildren. Sam had been out on his bike to deliver brownies to two of his grandsons the day before he died.
Holly Smith is a PhD candidate working on the history of high rise at University College London