Architectural safety standards: lessons from the Grenfell Tower tragedy25 May 2018
On 5 October, LEAF Review, in partnership with ETEM and Elval Colour, invited more than 20 leaders from the architectural community to an emotional roundtable discussion on the failures exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire in London, and what the legacy of the disaster might be, in terms of regulations, safety standards and better consultation.
So much of the architectural discourse concerning our building facades surrounds the latest, the smartest, the most visually striking.
Whether it’s the growing integration of technology and power generation, an ability to create buildings that are intuitively responsive to their surrounding environments and speak to their inhabitants, or the possibilities of reskinning older structures to create more sustainable cities, there are few areas of architecture that seem more aspirational and in thrall to the new.
The tragedy of June’s Grenfell Tower fire fundamentally transformed the tone of such discussions. Suddenly, facade materiality has been the subject of fierce public debate. Why and how are materials chosen? For these choices, how is accountability and responsibility apportioned in the supply chain? And must the factors that dictate the selection, certification and inspection process be fundamentally revised?
In October, LEAF Review, in partnership with leading aluminium extrusion company ETEM, and coated aluminium manufacturer and ETEM subsidiary Elval Colour, invited a selection of architects, facade engineers, suppliers and consultants for a dinner and roundtable conversation on the role the built environment community should play in this debate, and what the lasting legacy of the Grenfell tragedy might be.
Chaired by LEAF Review editor Phin Foster and held at the Stafford Hotel, just three miles from the site of the tragedy, participants in what proved an emotional – and at times heated – discussion included representatives from an array of leading practices, including Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, Aecom, Atkins and Perkins + Will.
In the wake of the fire, and the news that the architect-proposed fire-resistant zinc cladding had been replaced with cheaper aluminium panels in the refurbishment contract, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire called for architects to be given back power over the way their buildings are built. If only things could be so simple, a number of our dinner guests lamented.
“Knowing what we know and with the expertise we have, it’s made the whole event even more shocking,” said Neesha Gopal, a regional director at Meinhardt Facade Technology. “I’ve lived in London most of my life and just sat there asking how anybody could ever allow that material to be used on that building. I can’t tell you how upset it made me.”
“Money, money, money,” replied Mark Bax of BDP, to a collective groan. “As architects, we have had so much responsibility taken away from us and people just follow the rules that are laid down without asking questions. It is difficult to fight these conditions, but at some point you need to be able to say ‘no’.”
“But would anyone around this table have actually taken on the Grenfell cladding project?” countered William Poole-Wilson, a principal at Perkins + Will. “On these sorts of jobs, the architects in question don’t necessarily have the power to push back.”
All agreed that design and build contracts neutered the architect’s ability to make such decisions, with financial concerns and a considerable grey area around existing guidelines meaning that cost considerations all too often trumped safety. “There are projects where we’ve designed sprinkler systems throughout the building, and the social housing department has come back to us and said, ‘We don’t want them, they’re not mandated, they’ll cost too much to maintain’,” said Will Macdonald, a director at AECOM.
“What should your comment be when you’ve specified their requirement? How do we change that sort of mentality? It happened with the social housing at the Olympic Athletes Village. Sprinklers were removed from those apartments. That is the culture within which we’ve been working and, to me, it is fundamentally wrong.”
Raising the standard
Instead, architects were left requiring an enlightened client, willing to go beyond the bare minimum and bear the potential additional cost of doing so. “That’s fine if you’re working with the Apples and Googles of this world, but it really shouldn’t come down to that,” Gupta opined. “There’s also massive misunderstanding and confusion surrounding regulations. If you read [The 2010 UK building regulations on fire safety] Approved Document B and the four paragraphs on external surfaces, 12.6 to 12.9, they can contradict each other. There needs to be more clarity.”
“Any time you go higher than a certain number of storeys and there’s any confusion surrounding regulatory controls, you’re at significant risk,” agreed Alan Crawford, founding director of Crawford Partnership. “Fire is a very unpredictable physical thing. Any building that we as architects design, no matter what we clad it in, can we ever be sure it’s going to be safe or otherwise until disaster hits?”
Clarity and cohesion
But it’s not only architects who would like to see increased clarity, more stringent standards and greater ambition, argued Yannis Angelis, general manager of Elval Colour. “In our experience, you can have a properly designed facade that has been improperly installed and will fail in a fire situation,” he began. “Unfortunately, there are not always inspections. We’d love it if there were and that’s what we should be asking for. It’s just as important and beneficial to us from a manufacturer’s standpoint.”
While facade materiality has been a major topic of the post-fire debate, one delegate questioned whether it should be the main area of focus. “If you get the internal design right, then the facade is secondary to life safety,” said Adrian Brown, a fire service adviser with Dubai Civil Defence, chartered fire engineer and forensic fire investigator with the International Association of Arson Investigators. “The internal arrangements at Grenfell were changed from the approved design and therefore required sprinkler protection. The facade would have been BR 135-compliant, but if somebody comes in and changes the internal design, the whole approval goes out the window. Facade engineering is very important, but, in terms of life safety, this is where things went wrong. The basic principle is that the regulations in the UK are very good, if people stick to them.”
“If it’s life safety, why does it take a fire to actually realise what the problems were?” countered Macdonald.
“Exactly,” agreed Charis Cosmas, a senior facade engineer at BuroHappold. “Since Grenfell, look at how many buildings have been tested and have failed. Another big problem is that far too many people in building control don’t understand what a facade is.”
“I completely take the point about life safety and internal rearrangements; just getting people out of the building should be your first priority,” added Gupta. “But then, if you say, well, the building is sprinklered, so I can allow the building to just light up like a torch any way, is that right? No, because you have a ‘stay in place’ guideline under so many of the regulations.”
Working to improve
Emanuella Borri of Urbanist Architecture agreed. “Should an architect just stick to the regulations, feel comfortable doing so, and not go on to speculate and choose a solution that makes sense, rather than do what the book says?” she asked. “That seems a very limited approach.”
But this took us back once again to the fact that an architect was not always in the position to exert such levels of control. “At the start of the design process, you have an initial proposal and it slowly gets whittled down to the minimum requirement,” said Cosmas. “That leaves you stuck trying to figure out how to make something work, when it shouldn’t be like that at all; it should be a question of taking what already works and building from there.”
It was suggested that another part of the problem was a lack of representation on bodies that could actually drive change – the government’s failure to include any architects on the expert fire safety panel set up in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy was mentioned more than once during the course of the evening.
“We’re not represented at a high-enough government level in the UK or elsewhere,” Poole-Wilson agreed. “At the moment, we’re a restricted group of designers who people are willing to look to for thought – and perhaps occasionally blame – but we have no real voice. As long as that state of affairs exists, you can have as many tables like this as you want, where we share ideas, but we’re speaking in a vacuum. What needs to change is that governments actually take notice of who we are.
“It’s all very well for the RIBA president saying what he says, but it’s completely ineffectual – not because of anything he’s doing wrong, but because those bodies that could create genuine change are not compelled to listen.”
One thing that became clear is that the appetite and, in many cases, the anger exists among leaders within the architectural community to ensure that the Grenfell tragedy does at least elicit meaningful reform. If anything positive is to come from the deaths of at least 71 people in June 2017, it has to be fundamental, lasting change about how we design, certificate, refurb and manage our residential tower blocks. The powers that be should be looking to make architects integral to that process.