Emma Dent Coad is writing a political rant, picking easy targets while advertising her own sense of self-importance and missing many of the difficult and uncomfortable truths of this desperately sad event.
She rages against the usual suspects without proposing anything but the most naïve alternatives, while displaying a remarkably rose-tinted perspective of the past.
‘The bare arrogance of architect’s leads is breathtaking’, ‘D+B is invidious and inevitably results in a poor imitation of the original architect’s scheme’ , ‘Value Engineering is repellant: a term I never want to hear again’ ‘over-cladding raised my hackles as a MoMo purist’.
She harks back to the past: ‘Contrast this with the dedication and professionalism of my buddies in Docomomo UK, many of whom worked in the 1950s and ’60s for the LCC on that burst of inspiration and ingenuity that produced our post-war housing estates, civic centres and local facilities. They worked on their projects from early ideas through to the specification of every switch and handle and signed off the finished project for which they had legal responsibility.
This mixture of nostalgia and cant is historic revisionism which requires an alternative narrative. The idea that the development projects of the post war decades (which included the MoMo generation) evolved appropriate and sustainable housing flies in the face of the evidence that most were inappropriate: socially, economically and architecturally, creating ghettos that future generations have struggled to address at vast cost to individual communities.
Returning to the Grenfell enquiry: most architects I have spoken to recognise that any one of us could have been in the dock. This is not to trivialise the issues, but this has been a perfect storm and to simplify the conclusions into a few convenient sound bites is to ignore the complex nature of the process and the range of overlapping issues which contributed to the tragedy. The Enquiry may well decide to hang/castigate a few individuals to provide a public/media satisfaction, but that would ignore the complexity of every issue and the social, political and economic climate in which the Grenfell project evolved.
‘Design and Build’ as a procurement contract was devised as a method to use the skills of all those involved in the contracting process to achieve better and more efficient building projects. There are countless examples where this has been successful and to suggest that the ‘traditional contract’ offers an alternative panacea is ludicrous. Similarly, the idea that ‘Value Engineering’ is of itself a ‘bad thing’ is equally banal. The importance of achieving good value is an intrinsic part of any development process and to deny the part that the cost scrutiny of design decisions take is to deny a fundamental part of any architectural project.
The Grenfell Enquiry reveals a depressing context: Building Regulations which were confusing and inadequate, and which should have been amended after the recommendations of the Enquiry into the Irvine Fire: the recommendations were largely ignored by the Government. This was compounded by manufacturers marketing products which were demonstrably unsuitable as being compliant with the Building Regulations to use in the cladding of buildings like Grenfell.
A project as complex as Grenfell (which is most major building projects) demands an understanding and respect amongst the whole team (Client, design team, contractor, subcontractors, suppliers) of the role being taken by each team member and an honest and open-minded attitude to dealing with every issue, even at the risk of upsetting established patterns of working. An overlap of responsibilities is inevitable but there were clearly critical gaps in the responsibility taken for design, specification and construction of the cladding (and ultimately the architect’s seem to have been persuaded to sign a list of responsibilities - under pain of not being paid) that most PI insurers would surely advise against). As the Enquiry has evolved it is easy to pose the questions…but why:
• didn’t you insist that the fire consultant endorse the cladding and insulation that was finally specified?
• didn’t you point out that the cladding failed to meet the performance criteria in the original specification
• didn’t you ask the cladding specialist to clarify the fire insulation properties of the cladding
But it is easy to be wise after the event.
Ultimately a project is only as good as the team (and the systems of communication) involved in its delivery, whatever the procurement route. Some of the relationships were not as effective as they should have been and the critical cross checking and scrutiny that is a necessary part of the evolving design process was defective. Roles were misunderstood and vital checks were not taken at the right time. In the circumstances the project was primed for the disaster, but a single villain will be hard to pin down.
Comment on: Competition: Reimagining the Garden City
Letchworth Garden City have launched an international ‘Design Ideas’ competition for 900 homes, a school, community building and retail space. They are expecting an indicative master plan and indicative house types/typologies on 2 A2 sheets plus 8 pages of further detail plus a visual image to summaries the proposed concept. From this they will shortlist 4 schemes.
On the one hand the implications is a creative charette of ideas to explore the relevance of the Garden City for the 21st century, but of course the reality is a huge amount of work to distil a vision into 2 small sheets.
You would expect there to be some guidance in the brief on some of the key urban design issues, of which car parking is probably the most important. There is no reference in the brief to car parking or the PTAL rating of the site. Under ‘Design Approach’ in the brief there is the encouragement to propose ‘positive alternatives to the private car’ . The Brief does however refer ‘for more information’ to the Local plan which refers to the ‘SPG for vehicle parking at new developments’. This document requires minimum of 1 car parking space for a 1 bed unit and 2 car parking spaces for 2 or more bed space units. On this basis the minimum number of car parking space required for the residential units alone will be around 1650 (that is around 3 hectares of car parking). If this is likely to be the default planning standard applied to the new development it will have a dramatic impact on any design solution. Wouldn’t it be sensible for the competition organisers to be more definite about the realities of the Planning framework rather than encouraging the design of a plethora of urban villages with barely a car in sight which will be binned as soon as the harsh realities of the local plan kick in.
Comment on: Assael lodges plans for 2,000-home Ealing scheme
They ruined Lewisham, Ealing is next!
Comment on: Holocaust Memorial contest: What the jury heard
It is extraordinary that not one of the teams raised any concerns about the site or the logistics of building and running a memorial complex on this site. This is a beautiful and well used Public Park close to an area that is already massively crowded by visitors throughout the year. It is self evidently not suitable for a major building project, however well meaning. The opportunistic and ill considered decision by David Cameron to promote the location has never been scrutinised or the impact on the site and the area evaluated. The collective amnesia of the entire competition participants speaks volumes and with particular poignancy given what it is intended to remember.
Hard to believe the decision was unanimous