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798 Industry not reacting to failures

Report ID: 798

Published: Newsletter 55 - July 2019

Report Overview

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the reporter has personally experienced clients and contractors putting money before safety, and consultants giving poor advice on fire related issues.

Report Content

The tragic events at the Grenfell Tower fire should have been a wake-up call for the construction industry. The Hackitt report and the harrowing evidence at the Public Inquiry has revealed serious issues across the board which we should all be striving not to repeat, says a reporter.

They are concerned that those in the construction industry have not reacted at all to this tragedy and are carrying on as if nothing has changed. Whilst the current regulatory framework has not yet changed (although the government has just released a consultation on this), Dame Judith Hackitt has said that the industry should not wait for legislative change and should act now to ensure the safety of buildings.

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the reporter has personally experienced clients and contractors putting money before safety, and consultants giving poor advice on fire related issues. Examples include fire engineers attempting to justify poor designs rather than ensuring good design from the start, and structural engineers poorly advising on fire related aspects of the structural design. The reporter speculates that some of this may be down to a fear of telling the client that they can’t do something, combined with a lack of knowledge and experience in the realm of fire design.

The reporter has also uncovered products being put into buildings without the certification or justification which demonstrates their adequate performance, and in one case with certification to a relevant fire related British Standard which shows it does not meet the required standard in the guidance in the Approved Documents. While this could be deemed satisfactory if the performance of the materials is properly assessed as a whole, the reporter is referring to products being selected purely based on cost without regard to fire performance.

If attention is not paid to the products and their likely performance in the building, then surely it is only a matter of time before some unsafe combination of material and circumstance come together.

Prior to the government ban on combustible materials on high-rise homes, the reporter had experienced contractors and consultants proposing to install combustible insulation in cladding products for tall buildings, without thought or justification as to the performance of the system in fire, and the likely consequence. They will have known that this was reported to be a major contributor to the rapid fire spread at Grenfell.

Whilst the facts are not fully known until the Public Inquiry completes its work, the publicity alone should have been enough to make people review what they were doing, and in this case to realise that what they were doing didn’t comply with current guidance, let alone any lessons that needed to be learnt from the Grenfell tragedy. The reporter continues to see combustible products proposed in high rise residential buildings, despite the ban.

In the view of the reporter, this is simply not good enough, and it is time for all parties to take responsibility. Buildings are complex and bespoke, and the reporter acknowledges that the overall responsibility is not straight forward. However, the reporter believes that if each developer, architect, consultant, contractor, tradesperson and product supplier were to consider safety as their first priority, then many of the issues that they see would not occur.

Professionals are bound by their Institution’s Code of Conduct, but the reporter wonders whether all professionals are really taking this seriously.

Comments

This demonstrates the challenges faced as the industry goes through a period of change following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017. It is also a timely report following the publication of the consultation on building reforms by the UK Government on 6 June 2019.

This consultation, which is open until 31 July 2019, seeks views on the government’s proposals for a radically new building and fire safety system which puts resident’s safety at its heart. CROSS encourages readers to respond to the consultation. The results from the consultation will be used to frame legislation which in turn will have as an aim the changing of culture. There will be major changes aimed at safeguarding the public.

Everyone in the construction industry needs to take responsibility for the changes to happen. Clients must take the lead to ensure that their team, as a whole, produces a safe design. It is about more than following rules laid out in a regulatory system.

Behavioural changes are required so that safety comes first, and legislation is not needed for this to begin. The reporter is concerned that saving money is still given priority over safety which, as Dame Judith Hackitt says, is symbolic of the ‘race to the bottom’.

However, some progress is being made. The question of competency with its ramifications throughout construction is being addressed by the CIC Competence Steering Group. LABC have developed a test for its most experienced surveyors to demonstrate their competence in fire safety in higher risk and complex buildings.

Clients such as Network Rail have been running safety initiatives including Safe by Design, the principles of which are to actively eliminate or reduce risk during design development for construction and maintenance activities. Structural-Safety is working on several fronts to develop new systems to aid structural and fire safety.

Whilst sometimes overlooked, ethics play an important part and the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Statement of Ethical Principles sets out the values and principles that guide engineering practice and should supplement the codes of practice published by the various engineering institutions, including those for two of the Sponsor's of Structural-Safety, the IStructE and the ICE.

The most significant points are that:

  • All involved in the design, construction and operation of buildings must behave responsibly.
  • Lowest cost must not be the main criteria for selecting products, processes, or people.
  • Harm must be avoided throughout the construction and operation of buildings.
  • Responsibilities must be recognised and not devolved.
  • Lessons learned must be shared.

Feedback on this report, and the comments, will be particularly welcome.

 

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View other CROSS reports published in Newsletter 55


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