The World's Construction Industry Should Be Traumatized By Grenfell

The tragedy that killed 72 in London has lessons for everyone.

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Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

In June of 2017, the Grenfell Tower in London caught fire, killing 72 people. There was an immediate reaction from the British tabloids to blame "misguided climate targets," which is why we covered it in Treehugger. We pointed out that the cladding had been changed from zinc, which the architect had originally specified, to Reynobond PE, a sandwich of thin aluminum with polyethylene in between. This was installed on top of six inches of Celotex RS5000 polyisocyanurate rigid insulation. Both materials were supposed to be non-combustible, yet somehow they caught fire, which spread across the exterior of the building, melted all the plastic-framed windows, and filled the building with toxic smoke.

At the time I wrote a long post trying to explain what I thought happened and why, which turned out to be pretty accurate. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what went wrong; I chose the same cladding for the last project I did as an architect – a job that was too big for me to handle, which I got because I proposed too low a fee to do it properly, that had too many consultants working at cross-purposes, for a client who kept changing everything as it went along. This is how these things happen, and I suspect that there are a lot of architects thinking as John Bradford did in the 16th century as he watched prisoners on the way to execution: "there but for the grace of God go I." I concluded that post with a prediction:

"It is so unfortunate that it takes such a horrible tragedy to make architects and builders and code writers and building authorities get off their collective asses and do something, but this disaster is going to cause massive change and disruption in the industry worldwide."

But there are no words to describe the Phase II of an inquiry looking into how the building got designed and built the way it did. It is incomprehensible. I asked Will Hurst, a journalist with the Architects' Journal, how it was being received by the industry in the UK, and he tells Treehugger:

"The evidence emerging from the Grenfell Inquiry in recent months has been jaw-dropping for the public and architects alike. Because the testimony of key witnesses at the inquiry cannot be used against them in a criminal trial, it has already revealed an awful truth: we allowed the system meant to ensure building safety to be fatally undermined by commercialism and corruption."

I was planning on doing a blow-by-blow of the shocking stuff that came out of the inquiry, starting with how, according to the Architects Journal, "it was clear that the companies involved in the refurb of Grenfell Tower were backing away from taking responsibility for its design. The contractor, architect and subcontractor all pointed fingers at each other." That sounded familiar. Then there is the lying, the faked tests, the drugs, and the threats. However, Will Hurst points to a recent Guardian article that does a thorough job of it.

These are not fly-by-night little operations doing the lying and the cheating either; these are construction giants that work around the world, Arconic, Celotex, and Kingspan. Design, detailing, execution, testing procedures, inspections, reviews, everything was at best sloppy and at worst, criminal.

The inquiry is paused now until January thanks to the virus and the holidays, but Andrew Beharrell, an advisor to Pollard Thomas Edwards writes in the Architects Journal about how "the allegations and revelations emerging from the Grenfell Inquiry are deeply shocking. "

He calls for independent research, testing, and certification, suggesting that the current organizations that do the testing are too closely tied to the industry. He thinks building systems are too complex, and that there should be more standardization, especially for production housing. And he calls for greater responsibility.

"Alongside the above changes, we need major reforms to procurement, woven through with the golden thread of responsibility for safety. The Celotex scandal also reinforces my view that the housing industry, and wider society, have become too attuned to assuming everything will be fine if we follow regulations and guidance – and too trusting of the wisdom and probity of the authors, whether they work for a statutory body or a product manufacturer. In future we need to be more challenging, more sceptical and independent-minded, taking more responsibility for our own decisions."

That's a big ask when there is a consultant for everything specifically so that you don't have to take responsibility for every decision but rely on experts. It's also hard to be challenging and skeptical when you are under pressure from clients to cut costs; that's how we got here in the first place.

Grenfell monthly march
The monthly Grenfell Silent Walk makes its way around North Kensington.

Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Both the Architects Journal and Building Design are behind paywalls but bits and pieces are available. However, the Guardian editorializes about it:

"What the fire at Grenfell Tower illustrated in an extraordinarily vivid way was that the least well-off people face the greatest risks from such failures of oversight and governance, on whatever scale. We already knew that the tower’s residents were not listened to, even when it came to the safety of their own homes. Recent evidence has confirmed long-held suspicions that Grenfell’s 72 victims were consumed in a fire fuelled by greed."