The profession has reacted with shock and anger at the government’s failure to include any architects on the expert fire safety panel set up following the Grenfell Tower tragedy
Communities secretary Sajid Javid announced yesterday (27 June) that a new independent group had been put in place to advise on the ‘immediate’ measures needed to ensure the safety of residents in hundreds of tower blocks around the country.
The panel, which will meet for the first time this week, will be headed by Ken Knight, the ex-London Fire Commissioner and former government chief fire and rescue adviser.
He will be aided by three ‘core members’ of the group: Peter Bonfield, chief executive of the BRE; Roy Wilsher, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council; and Amanda Clack, president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and a partner at Ernst & Young (EY).
Although the panel said it would ‘draw in wider technical expertise as necessary to inform their advice’, there is currently no representation from the RIBA.
Former RIBA president Jack Pringle, now principal at Perkins + Will, branded the omission ‘ridiculous’. He said: ‘What has the RICS and EY got to do with this?
‘It’s architects who pull the whole design together; our expertise needs to be on that panel.’
Ex-BDP chair and former RIBA vice president Richard Saxon said: ‘One of the issues to be opened up is the loss of the architect’s authority in the building process. Supervision is largely a dead service and specification change by the contractor, often after approval of regulations, is normal. The regulatory process has also been part-privatised, creating concerns about its independence.
‘That said, there are many experts in fire safety and in building regulations within the architectural profession. One of these should certainly have been put forward by RIBA. If they were, and were not adopted, that’s another story.
‘This whole disastrous event has layers of relevance to the industry and its professions.’
Meanwhile director of Dennis Sharp Architects and former RIBA Honorary Secretary Yasmin Shariff said the lack of a professional voice on the panel had come as ‘no suprise to her’ and smacked of the ‘tragically fatal culture’ prevalent in the public procurement system.
‘The disregard for architects is unforgiveable,’ she said. ‘After all who needs an architect? You can do it yourself cheaply, faster and for the least possible quote and at the greatest cost.’
Shariff added: ‘The built environment is complex. The issue is not just about getting the fire safety kit in order, it is also about understanding people’s needs and behaviour and having meaningful and realistic maintenance regimes.’
Despite the omission from the panel, an RIBA spokesperson insisted the institute was in ‘regular contact with ministers and civil servants’ and had offered its members’ expertise and reiterated its recommendations on fire safety to the communities secretary.
‘We have convened our own expert group on fire safety, and will be working with our members to provide technical and expert evidence to the public inquiry,’ they said.
The appointments to the panel come as the government confirmed 120 towers had now failed fire safety tests – a 100 per cent failure rate on all the high-rise blocks that have come under scrutiny since the fire in west London killed at least 79 people earlier this month.
Stephen Hodder, former RIBA president
As Peter Bonfield identifies it is essential that an independent expert advisory panel draws on the best expertise. And in this regard there is profound knowledge within the architectural profession. Shortly after the tragic disaster I was contacted by a colleague, Professor Michael Stacey, who emailed;
‘As an architect with a long-term expertise on cladding I am happy to help. In 1988 I wrote Overcladding: An Uncertain Panacea for the AJ, which warned about the risk of fire spread in rainscreen cladding.
‘Politicians announcing that tower blocks will be inspected is of limited value. To understand a cladding assembly one needs the project details of the specific cladding used and full build up before inspection. On inspection where the fire stops are installed and whether they are installed correctly will not be visible.
‘I base this on having inspected over 70 tower blocks on Merseyside. Can you recommend someone I should contact?’
If there is to be no architect on the panel it is important that it reverts to the RIBA to access the knowledge that exists. Everyone wishes to help and to ensure that there is no repeat of the tragedy.
Chris Roche, 11.04 Architects
If, as is suggested, there is no RIBA representative on the government’s newly appointed expert advisory panel, then it is time for the RIBA to stand aside, and allow a new voice for the profession to emerge.
Faheem Aftab, architect, Manchester
While I welcome the announcement of an expert advisory panel, the omission of an architect on the initial list of advisers is surprising. There is a need to draw on the expertise of the entire construction industry.
Architecture is too important to be left to architects alone, but to have an advisory panel on architecture without an architect would be a mistake.
John Assael, chair of Assael Architecture
I’m not sure that an architect would be appropriate member of the small inquiry panel into the Grendell tower fire. I would expect that the panel would consult widely and this would mean drawing on the expertise of some specialists including architects.
However, I would expect the RIBA and some expert architects to be involved in taking forward any recommendations in the future.