One year after the Grenfell Tower fire, architects are still working out a new way forward

Local graffiti expresses strength of feeling after the Grenfell fire.
Local graffiti expresses strength of feeling after the Grenfell fire. Credit: Sarah Lee

More than a year after the Grenfell Tower fire disaster the construction industry ­remains in a state of shock. The subsequent government cladding test programme ­revealed a large number of high-rise residential buildings with external wall systems that were deemed to be unsafe – and the industry is still struggling to fully understand the implications of the failures in our regulatory and procurement systems that led us to this situation.

The continuing media interest and publicity surrounding the fire and its aftermath has kept the issue at the top of the public consciousness, so it is vital that architects reconnect with their local communities, be brave in their response to the ‘race to the bottom’ procurement strategies, and collaborate proactively and visibly to retain and develop the trust in our professionalism which could be in some doubt.

In the words of Cicero: ‘The safety of the people shall be the highest law.’ If we were aware that a disaster of this nature could happen, what could have been done to prevent it? What can we now do to improve and implement our fire safety knowledge, and put the protection of lives firmly back in the forefront of our long-term design strategy?

Shortly after the Grenfell Tower fire, RIBA Council established an Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety to develop the RIBA policy response and provide guidance for RIBA members. The Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt, was a key part of the government’s response after Grenfell, and the RIBA Expert Advisory Group put in a detailed submission to the review.

We hoped that the review would not only look at the issues within the industry but offer clear guidance to government on the changes needed to provide clear and unambiguous regulations on fire safety.

When the final report of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review was published on Thursday 17 May, the RIBA welcomed many of the overarching long term recommendations. The proposal to establish a Joint Competent Authority, bringing in the expertise of the HSE and the fire brigades, to oversee a new fire safety regulatory framework for higher risk buildings seemed a sensible step. 

The safety of the people shall be the highest law – Marcus Tullius Cicero

However, the detail of how this would operate remains sketchy, and the definition of ‘higher risk’ buildings to which it would apply was in our view too limited – at present just to multiple occupancy high-rise residential buildings over 10 storeys in height.

The RIBA Expert Advisory Group thinks that this should be applied to all residential buildings above five storeys, and extended to other buildings where people sleep and to many other higher-risk building categories. The very sensible call in the report for statutory duties for life safety to be allocated to the client, principal designer and principal contractor could be achieved simply by extending the scope of the CDM Regulations and applying this principle to all building projects.

The major concern of the RIBA was the refusal of the report to recognise the need for clear baseline prescriptive standards in relation to such matters as the use of combustible materials, sprinklers and means of escape.

In progressing the review, Dame Judith seemed to be convinced that an ‘outcomes-based’ approach with no room for prescriptive standards was preferable; her report perhaps misjudged the political and public need to create some specific short term actions and shied away from recommendations to ban combustible ­materials in the external wall construction on high-rise buildings, to require sprinklers in residential buildings and to set out specific provisions on alternative means of escape. Desktop studies, for which the RIBA had called for a ban, were simply rebranded as ‘assessments in lieu of test’.

Tributes must be accompanied by practical action on safety.
Tributes must be accompanied by practical action on safety. Credit: Sarah Lee

However, by lunchtime on the day of the report’s publication this position was undermined by an announcement by James Brokenshire, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, that the government would commence a consultation on banning the use of combustible materials in cladding systems. The government understood the need for the type of baseline prescriptive requirements that the RIBA Expert Advisory Group has consistently called for, alongside the Local Government Association and the Association of British Insurers.

The construction industry desperately needs clarity on the issues of combustible materials and sprinklers today; for one thing this is holding up the retrofit programme for those tower blocks which have been deemed at risk following the government testing programme. In the meantime and in the ­absence of true clarity, professionals will need to proceed with a precautionary approach in their advice to clients and refuse to specify combustible materials where this could affect life safety.

Dame Judith’s report correctly placed significant emphasis on the need for cultural change, re-establishing the golden thread of responsibility, and calling for better levels of competence in the construction industry. At its July meeting, RIBA Council will be considering a proposal to strengthen the mandatory CPD requirements in relation to health and life safety and to introduce a five-yearly online health and life safety knowledge test for all UK chartered members.

Of course designing, constructing and managing buildings to be safe for all that use them is an ethical issue as much as it is one about regulation and design and construction process. Somewhere along the way there seems to have been a collective loss of perspective, where lowest cost and all that this implies, has replaced skill and care, quality and sustainability in selection of procurement routes.

‘Fire engineering’ approaches were ­allowed to develop that wrapped fire-safe design up in a fog of pseudo-science that provided a false sense of security. Common sense seems to have taken a back seat. Change will require a stronger regulatory system, clear and specific Approved Document guidance and an industry-wide commitment to cultural change, which must also embrace the role of the client in insisting that safety and quality is not compromised in the name of economy and efficiency.

Now is the time to be strong, to speak out, to go back to basic, long-established professional principles and put the safety of those who construct and use our buildings as our primary concern. As Martin Luther King Jr once said: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ •

Jane Duncan is RIBA immediate past president and chair of RIBA Fire Safety Advisory Group

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