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In Light of Grenfell Tower: Changes Must Be Made Within The Construction Industry

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We are constantly discovering deplorable actions by developers and design-and-build contractors due to their insatiable greed. There seems to be an increase in lack of responsibility or even concern about the safety of others due to their poor practices.

Architects that are licensed professionals have a responsibility to protect the interests of the building occupants, the general public, and the environment. This is something that these people within the construction industry have little to no concern about. Quite honestly, their lack of concern and poor skills should be regarded as criminal negligence. The total absence of skills in the UK construction industry is a result of people in power with responsibilities turning a blind eye and not regulating systems that will protect people.

The perfect example is the tragedy at the Grenfell Tower that caused lives and enormous destruction. There have been countless stories of many complaints by residents concerning their fears of insufficient fire safety. By all reports, there seems to be more than one malpractice that led to the horrific tragedy and there are probably many more stories from those who survived. It does seem that there were multiple failures on the part of the construction industry that must be addressed. I applaud the RIBA President’s demand for a meaningful public inquiry to get to the bottom of this catastrophe. Let’s hope these demands are not toothless.

It’s imperative that an investigation looks into all actions that were taken within the system that, if done properly, could have prevented this tragedy. The Prime Minister made a decision to implement actions that should have been learned from past fires in tall residential buildings over the years and find out if recommendations implemented from these fires were enforced at Grenfell Tower. This also includes implementing or improving avenues to get out of a building in the event of a fire. With proper guidelines, the loss of life would have been significantly lower. Also, did the local authorities read the reports endorsed by Sir Eric Pickles that were sent to them regarding the recommendations to place sprinkler systems in all tall buildings, both in new construction and existing construction? If these recommendations had been adhered to, chances are the fire would have been contained, the loss of life and serious injuries would have been prevented.

There are serious questions that should have asked regarding the reasons for renovating Grenfell Tower. It might be a bit cynical to believe the sole reason was to improve its appearance and thereby increase its market value in the area: Why was funding provided for re-cladding but not for a sprinkler system?

There have been reports that the fire may have been caused by faulty appliances. In the UK, housing landlords do not normally provide appliances such as ovens, washers, and dryers. The tenants in many of these buildings are very poor but are expected to have their own appliances and install them. Most of these appliances are old, second-hand, and not in good working condition The idea that a tenant should install their own gas cooker is not only appalling but a terrifying thought! Many of these people are disabled, in poor health, and do not have the expertise to install them safely. This is a requirement that should be placed on the landlord to provide and install all appliances before the tenants move in. This is a major requirement in other countries such as 
Germany.

Mrs. May’s comment “If there are lessons to be learned…” “If” is not a particularly good question as it’s obvious there are lessons that must be learned. Even if it’s too early in the investigation stage, it is believed that public investigations must be implemented quickly and the authorities should be ready with answers. The entire construction industry should be ready to get on board with proper changes which include the professional body and RIBA which managed to stay silent on the subject until they were pressured.

RIBA’s response, to date, has been far from adequate and seems to be extremely insensitive to this horrible incident. We believe that directly after this disaster, RIBA showed incredible insensitivity by issuing a tweet! The tweet was not related to the disaster but instead “clay brick and concrete Mexican house is set around a cactus tree.” Someone, please explain what that comment has to do with the Grenfell Tower tragedy!

Grenfell Tower was renovated by means of a contractor-led “design-and-build” contract. Through short-term financial savings and cutting back on skills within the local authority organisations, these public people have become even more reliant on outsourcing to the lowest bidder. This should leave everyone questioning whether the lowest bidder has the ability and skills to implement the same standards as one should expect from a public works project. This is a short-term mentality that is very lazy, leading to the construction industry being taken over by this incompetent form of procurement. Government agencies and developers are jumping on board even though they know there is an immense shortfall in skilled labor.

We have been pointing out, for some time now, that we have received reports from reliable sources that there is criminal negligence taking place within the construction industry. Uncaring and greedy contractors are only looking to make short-term profits at the cost of everyone else’s safety. That said, overall scrutiny has dramatically dropped due to the use of privatised checking agencies that just happen to be employed by contractors. Without a doubt, this is a huge conflict of interest when it comes to providing certificates that the contractor needs.

We spoke with a senior council building control officer regarding the potential for corruption within the building control services. Private companies are now taking on these roles to compete with publicly funded building control. They are paid by the contractor by providing certificates that pass inspection. The RBKC Building Control was directly involved in inspecting Grenfell Tower. That said, there should be questions regarding the opportunities that these inspectors have to understand in order to pickup flaws in defective design or construction. There seems to be a lack of understanding due to under funding for the role of inspectors. They do not have the opportunity to collaborate with an independent professional architect that is normal practice in traditional building contracts.

With the depletion of independent architects, there is an incredible loss of the key components of quality control. If a contractor hires an architect to check the construction of a building but has no legal power to issue contract instructions, there is an obvious lack of control over the operation which, in turn, leads to another conflict of interest.

In order to maintain an adequate level of quality control, there should be a highly-skilled, professional designer to implement contracts in a traditional way. They should have the power to implement changes when they find flawed work. Unfortunately, the Thatcher government managed to put professionals in handcuffs and place the reins in the hands of contractors. This practice has never changed since then.

Thanks to the power held by contractors regarding design-and-build contracts, architects have lost all abilities to instruct the contractors. It amazes us that the government has accepted that contractors are in charge, hiring architects and giving them instructions or totally shutting them down if they do not agree. Architects are continually feeling powerless but go along with this government approved the practice. We have never gotten involved in design-and-build contracts and do not plan on doing so. We have gone out of our way to convince our clients to stay away from this practice as well as managing to get local authorities to allow us to control the quality of detailing in the designs because we have shown them the benefits of traditional contracts in order to deliver the very best quality assurance from the start of construction through to the completed project.

I strongly believe that it’s time for the RIBA to take back control and leadership in this matter. They must start developing a RIBA report that will help the government bring about needed changes. The government must start putting people’s lives ahead of a contractor’s profits.

That is not to say that architects have never made mistakes because that is just not true. Everyone makes mistakes because no one is perfect and that is precisely why we need a system that will prevent or find problems before they escalate, creating a serious situation. We do not believe that design-and-build contracts offer any form of checks and balances. Sadly, design-and-build contracts have taken away many safeguards providing a high-level of risk to the public and the environment by incorporating poor quality and unscrupulous practices by contractors.

The fact remains many people and organisations willingly participate in rushing to get the job done to decrease the costs which result in poor quality, value, and removes safety factors in order to get the most out of their financial investments. These practices are deplorable and should be stopped!

From the time we first started our architectural practice, we have witnessed many traditional construction firms disappearing, replaced by financial organisations led by managers who do not have the skills or expertise for these projects. These managers are only brought in to complete a certain level of construction in order to supply contractors with excellent profits. We have spoken to many highly qualified subcontractors who are not even being paid for their work!

Unfortunately, architecture is now a business of opportunity, not a community service. These firms are looking to make as much money as possible regardless of the moral issue, no longer representing what or who they are supposed to be. They have become the puppets of the construction industry. Young, up-and-coming architects need to learn the details involved in building construction but it seems to be a lost trade.

There were many complaints filed about the Grenfell Tower before the disaster ever happened. Many of these complaints were directed at the organisation that decided to privatise the council’s maintenance and procurement departments. There were many other complaints regarding how the construction was carried out, including gas pipes that were not properly encased to protect them in the event of a fire. It’s very hard to believe that these pipes were not encased properly, considering the numerous complaints that were filed. Even though there were numerous complaints, why was a flammable cladding material used on the facades? Also, was there ever any consideration given to fire breaks to stop a fire from spreading to the cladding?

We have constantly spoken up about the poor practice of creating a ventilated cavity between the building’s structure and its external insulation. This practice renders the insulation totally useless and creates an avenue for the fire to spread and intensify!

It really bothers us to witness this kind of installation is applied to buildings and nothing is being done about it. On one occasion we contacted the Authority Building Control Department to place a complaint. Eventually, we spoke with someone who informed us that the building was being overseen by a private building control company. When asked if this was his project, would he consider it an acceptable practice? His only comment was he didn’t know, explaining that he is only a building control manager, not a building control officer. On two different occasions, we tried to contact the private building control company as well as the people in charge of regulating the building control requirements, on both occasions we got nowhere! It seems, that no one is in a position to be held responsible.

Continued complaints regarding the Grenfell Tower and blatant warnings were filed from many different sources including the high-risk of a fire. As for Teresa May’s comment about lessons learned, this is a clear indication of just how out of touch she and the government truly are. The construction company’s response was that the project met all required regulations and was handed over when the completion notice was issued by the Department of Building Control, despite what happened.

Quite honestly, architects and the RIBA need to stop making excuses for a really bad system. RIBA should stop remaining silent and start making significant changes before another tragedy happens. Tweeting about the President’s remarks followed by other insignificant tweets is not only insensitive but leaves the door open for another disaster to take place. One official in RIBA did comment about reading an article in the German media that states very clearly that fire safety regulations in Germany prohibits the use of inflammable insulation materials for buildings higher than 22m but is obviously not the case in either the UK or France.

Regarding evacuation from tall buildings, there should be two separate stairways that are completely separate mechanically, electrically, and structurally in order to prevent smoke from entering the stairway and allowing people to get out safely. In all fairness, this might not be possible in older buildings.

We do not know if regulations in the UK have similar requirements but are just not as strict or whether the regulations are just being ignored. Someone needs to address the RIBA and find out if they have anyone in place to research these regulations and make a meaningful statement in the very near future. We are not holding our breath that this will ever happen. There is no forum on RIBA’s website for debate leaving us to believe that professional architects that are members of RIBA really don’t care.

Everyone should be extremely angry about this horrible disaster and the unnecessary loss of life. We should be angry about those injured and think about the pain and suffering felt by families who lost their loved ones. It’s time we all stood up and put pressure on those in charge to bring about change so this kind of tragedy never happens again!

In all honesty, we do not believe that the public is going to just stand by and let this kind of conduct continue. The public is not going to be happy with anything less than significant change!

In Conclusion

The tragedy that took place at Grenfell Tower should never have happened. This fire, along with many others, could have been prevented once and for all if new regulations and restrictions were in place. From the Prime Minister to those in charge of building codes must step up and demand ethical conduct from the construction industry. If they refuse and continue to drag their feet, how can they get up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror?

Innocent people died or were seriously injured in this horrific fire because of poor, greedy practices. The people living at Grenfell Tower were poor, do you think officials would turn a blind eye if this happened in Knightsbridge or 10 Downing Street? It’s time that the UK gives control back to architects who have the expertise and understanding to ensure buildings are meeting proper codes for the safety of the public.

Control should be taken out of the hands of contractors and their design-and-build contracts. Are the images of this fire embedded in the minds of our government, the Department of Building Control, and all other departments that have been involved in shady practices? Maybe or maybe not, but it certainly is embedded in the minds of the public and their voices will be heard through elections and the replacement of those people within departments that let this tragedy happen.

Here’s hoping things will change and innocent people will not be harmed any longer due to greed and the bottom line.

 


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