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Analysis: Grenfell tragedy highlights architects' marginalisation

Grenfell tower fire crop

The profession’s ever-diminishing role through measures such as Design and Build and PFI was brought into focus by June’s horrific fire. Ella Braidwood reports

Last week, the RIBA released a five-page document detailing its demands for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Among them were several pointed statements on the diminished role of architects in building projects, and instructions for the inquiry to examine the UK procurement system.

The institute says that the public inquiry should cover the ‘broadest possible remit’ in examining the ‘regulatory and procurement context for construction of buildings in the United Kingdom’.

This, it adds, should include looking at the development of building procurement methods, which mean that the lead designer is ‘frequently no longer responsible from inception to completion of the project for oversight’, as well as the ’virtual disappearance’ of the role of the on-site clerk of works.

Hopefully Grenfell is a wake-up call. We can’t go on like this.

In the post-Grenfell climate, frustrated architects have come forward and spoken to the AJ about being ‘completely marginalised’ in project teams, as well as their fears over a reduction in quality through Design and Build contracts.

Russell Curtis, founding director of RCKa Architects, is exasperated by the current state of the profession, and says the Grenfell Tower tragedy must be a cause for change.

‘Hopefully Grenfell is a wake-up call,’ he says. ‘We can’t go on like this.’

Curtis – although keen to not make any direct links to the factors behind the Grenfell Tower fire – is talking about the reduction in design quality on building projects, and the reduced role of architects over the years.

The fire, he says, was the ‘tragic conclusion to this gradual reduction in quality’.

In particular, Curtis highlights problematic Design and Build contracts, which he says have reduced the ability of architects to oversee design quality on site.

In an August 2013 press release published by Kensington & Chelsea TMO (Tenant Management Organisation), the £10 million refurbishment of Grenfell Tower – likely to be a key focus of the public inquiry – is identified as a Design and Build contract.

But Curtis says: ‘One of the consequences of the Design and Build process is the fact that, in lots of cases, architects are discouraged from coming to site.

‘There is nobody independently checking the quality of construction, which is a fundamental issue.’

He adds: ‘Architects are seen as adding cost and complications … because the architects are employed by the contractor, rather than the client, they are no longer independent.’

He is calling for a return to a traditional form of procurement, suggesting that this should be rebranded as ‘quality-led procurement’ to appeal more to those in the industry.

‘A traditional contract does place the architect back in the middle of the design scheme and puts the design team at the interface for everything – that’s really healthy,’ he says. ‘We need to make sure we have the skills available to be able to reclaim that ground.’

Curtis is not alone. Since the fire, a number of other leading architects have told the AJ they are exasperated by the decreasing role of architects in design teams, as well as low-quality Design and Build projects.

Architect and University of Liverpool professor Alan Dunlop says architects have been ‘marginalised as part of the design team’.

He adds: ‘They no longer have a responsibility they used to have under a traditional form of building contract … where they had the responsibility to manage the contract and were working for both the contractor and the client when the building was being built.’

Dunlop draws similarities to the sidelining of architects at both Grenfell Tower and Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh

Like Curtis, Dunlop argues that this decrease in architects’ responsibility began with the adoption of Design and Build contracts, as well as projects built under the Private Finance Initiative, which was widely adopted by the Labour government under Tony Blair.

He draws similarities to the sidelining of architects at both Grenfell Tower and Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh. In 2016, part of the school’s wall was blown off during stormy weather, though luckily no one was in the building at the time. Dunlop says the original architect had told the contractor about the ‘potential problem’ with the building of the wall, but for ‘whatever reason’ was ignored.

However, Dunlop stresses that architects also carry a responsibility for their own relegation in design teams.

‘Architects have allowed themselves to be marginalised by accepting these incredibly low fee bids and getting in competition with each other to see who can outbid each other to do the work,’ he says.

Dunlop argues that both the RIBA and the RIAS are ‘so toothless’ in raising the serious issues affecting architects – including the government’s failure to include any architects on the expert fire safety panel set up following the Grenfell Tower fire – that no one is ‘paying attention at all to what either are saying’.

As part of its immediate response to Grenfell Tower, the government has set up an independent group, headed by former London fire commissioner Ken Knight, to advise on the ‘immediate’ measures needed to ensure the safety of residents in hundreds of tower blocks around the country.

But the group contains no architects, and there is real concern that the profession’s technical expertise could be missed out.

Compliance with regulations, instead of being a minimum standard, becomes the maximum necessary to meet the contract requirements

Yasmin Shariff, principal of Dennis Sharp Architects, says: ‘The disregard for architects [on the panel] is unforgivable. 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, who says the UK has a ‘tragically fatal’ public procurement system, adds: ‘Would we have heart surgery without a heart surgeon? No of course not. So why is it that we continue to build and renovate without an architect?

’The planning system is a joke, framework agreements are a fix and the hate towards modern design typified by high rise blocks is neurotic. The panel has little chance of considering any of the real core issues; they do not have the training, skill set or experience.’

Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates says that, in part, the reduced role of architects on building projects is self-inflicted. ‘There is a risk of us becoming mere stylists if our responsibilities continue to be eroded,’ he warns.

‘Part of this is fuelled by architects themselves, whereby low fee bids lead to the avoidance of responsibility and to limits on the amount of work undertaken.

‘Contractors, particularly in the lower end of the Design and Build market, add to the pressure by being selective about what they engage architects to do.

‘Compliance with regulations and specifications, instead of being a minimum standard, becomes the maximum necessary to meet the contract requirements, with numerous specialists and “value engineers” engaged to see how compliance can be achieved by doing less.’

He adds that a ‘proper clerk-of-works’ seems to be a thing of the past.

The lessened role of architects in building projects is historical and dates back to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, first elected in 1979.

Retired architect Sam Webb, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire & Rescue Group, says Thatcher’s government led to ‘privatisation, self-regulation and cuts’.

Webb, who is also a member of the recently founded RIBA Expert Advisory Group on the Grenfell Tower Fire, points in particular to the disbanding of the Greater London Council in 1986. This led to the repeal of the London Building Acts 1930-39, which had been enforced by district surveyors. As part of this, the architectural part of s20 of these acts, which covered fire safety, was abolished. The final part, enforced by the London Fire Brigade, was notably repealed just six days before the inquest began into the fire at Lakanal House in 2009.

The architectural part of s20 applied to buildings more than 30m high, or buildings above 25m with an area of more than 930m², and banned the use of flammable materials. Webb says these acts applied to both Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower when they were built, meaning they would have been fire safe. But the acts did not apply to the later refurbishments of these buildings. 

Webb says this privatisation and culture of deregulation was continued under New Labour.

’Architecture didn’t escape,’ he says. ‘Design and Build, Private Finance Initiatives and new forms of contractual arrangements put paid to our ideas of being “leader of the team”.’ 

For Webb, Grenfell Tower must be a turning point for building legislation in the UK – including the regulations, procurement and the role of architects.

‘Apart from the Pipa Alpha [oil rig] fire you have to go back to the Exeter Theatre Royal fire in 1881 to find more people dying in a fire in mainland Britain,’ he says.

’If this fire does not lead to major changes not only to building legislation but how it is enforced and administered, then what happened at Grenfell Tower will happen again. It does not have to be like this.’


Readers' comments (11)

  • There have been a number of examples where buildings do not comply with the regulations and yet they have been approved by Building Control or Approved Inspectors. Who do you go to get assistance from and how do you get rectification. There needs to be some kind of Over body to appeal. We are going down the route of self certification with no comeback

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  • It is clearly understood by everyone that the reason that architects have been marginalised in terms of procurement, and why more traditional forms of contract are no longer in vogue, is cost. The construction industry has sold the mantra to clients, and clients have accepted the argument, that D&B gives ‘best value’ and ‘cost certainty’, because there is a single source for the procurement, controlling the whole process. But the focus is only on the construction project itself. It is time to look at ‘cost-in-use’, starting with the schools in Edinburgh, and of course Grenfell Tower, and many other towers across the country that have now been found to be sub-standard.

    For the Edinburgh schools, how convincing is the ‘best value’ mantra looking now?

    And for Grenfell Tower, once all the costs have been added up, including the cost of re-housing the tenants, the cost of the police investigation, the cost of the public inquiry, the cost of demolishing the tower and replacing it with housing elsewhere, when all this is added up, it is completely insignificant when one considers the heart-breaking human cost.

    Alan Power
    Alan Power Architects Ltd

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  • Richard Saxon

    Let us not forget that one of the drivers of the move to D&B is the avoidance of responsibility by architects. PII hardly protects clients: it's there to defend professionals. Clients can get a guarantee of fitness for purpose from a contractor-led team but not from a traditional contract.We should include a move to integrated project insurance as part of this great review. Richard Saxon, JCT

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  • John Kellett

    I certainly agree with Richard Saxon about needing IPI but PII is not the problem, the lack of regulation over 'architectural' designers and consultants is. Any Tom, Dick or Harry (or Charles?) can claim to be an architectural technician / technologist / engineer / surveyor / designer / consultant. ONLY Chartered members of those professions are required to be qualified in the subject of the profession and none are qualified as architects. As architects we have been fobbed off by the government, spouting the 'free market' excuse, but the lack of regulation controlling the building design professions and the construction industry workers is killing people.

    BCOs and Local Authorities, carry NO design liability, the responsibility lies with those designing and building who, currently, are not required to be qualified. Madness.

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  • Any architect practicing in the United States has to be registered with a local or State Board that certifies his competency. Together with structural engineers, they are defined as 'design professionals' who are the only persons (not firms) certified to make application for building permits and thus to be responsible for the design of buildings subject to the permit.

    Fire resistance (both active and passive) are tightly regulated under US buildings codes, and are rigorously applied and monitored. The UK can do worse than to adopt the International Building Code and its various sub-codes, and including the requirement that only properly-certified competent architects act as 'design professionals' defined in Code.

    Right now it is statistically way safer to be a high-rise apartment resident in the US than the UK... go figure!

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  • The arguments put forward in this article are clearly motivated by a desire to reduce the risk of a tragedy like this reoccurring. It is unfortunate however that due to the emphasis on architects’ marginalisation, there is also a small undertone of opportunism. This disaster should not be used by architects any more than it should be capitalised upon by politicians. The marginalisation of architects has taken place over several decades, during which architects failed to respond proactively to major strategic change in the industry. This should not be regarded as an opportunity to turn back the clock.

    As the scope of architectural services evolved under design and build contracts, some of their control over design was relinquished into the hands of contractors, project managers and other specialists. However, while architects remained committed to honesty, integrity and competency principles set out in the RIBA’s code of professional conduct, other firms have not be bound by similar ethical obligations. This should be the emphasis of the argument.

    It seems to be a major oversight from the authors of new procurement legislation that compliance with such principles is not a requirement for all lead roles in the construction industry. Given our current industry landscape in which architects share design control within a more integrated team, perhaps it is time for the ethics of all lead firms to be more closely regulated.

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  • This is not the time to mince words. This is the time for the whole architectural; profession to rise up and to say, as one, ‘No more of this!’ If, in the aftermath of the quite appalling, entirely avoidable, Grenfell Tower tragedy it does not, however, do so, its continuing apathetic resignation and defeatism will most certainly doom the whole profession to ‘more of the same’; to yet more diminishment and marginalisation, if such a thing is still at all possible, so low has the once respected profession of architecture already fallen!

    This AJ article is 'spot-on', and could have been, is, in fact, a distillate of all this writer’s ‘office rants’ over the last thirty-five years or more! But why only now is the architectural profession responding with articles like this AJ one? The shock wave which has been reverberating around the profession since the Grenfell Tower tragedy has generated a good deal of navel-gazing and existential angst, but only six comments in connection with this articles absolutely correct analysis of the very serious built environment problem which has been infecting British society ever since the Thatcher era… Why, however, one might reasonably ask, has this article not generated six hundred (or more) comments from the profession at large? The relative paucity of reader’s responses to this first-rate ‘clarion-call’ AJ article is indicative of the entire problem, which problem is the absolutely apathetic resignation to the fate of the architectural profession (which now, clearly, needs to be much more accurately renamed and redefined as ‘That bunch of unimportant, well down the pecking order, design only sub-contracting utensils of the Thatcherist ‘spiv’s charter’ culture which, from time to time, makes ritual sacrifices on the flaming altar of their god, Mammon, for profit’) which has infected architects ever since the profession was, in the Thatcher era, deregulated. This largely unopposed deregulation led inexorably to the quite disastrous abolition of the nationally applicable fee scale in favour of ‘I will name that tune in one.’, i.e. ‘I will do that scheme for a minute, suicidal, fee.’… when did anyone last hear a solicitor, a barrister, a doctor, or an accountant saying anything like this? Answer: Non of these other professions, solidly backed up by their respective professional bodies such as the BMA, etc., as they always have been, have never said anything remotely like this!

    It hardly needs this writer to point out that any and all protestations and ‘relevant to the essential root problem’ comments which are, alongside articles like this one, only now beginning to issue forth from within the architectural profession, are, surely, a classic case of ‘far too little, far too late’! Despite these recent ‘stirrings’ the quite unpalatable fact remains that architects in general, and the essentially inert, quisling RIBA, have been hugely culpable over time of kowtowing to the wicked agendas of ‘the spivs' charter’ which was created by Thatcher, and which has been greatly developed and (wrongly!) praised as ‘the new, and better, way of doing things’ by every successive government since Thatcher’s time. In singular contradistinction to this disgraceful resignation and capitulation to ‘the forces of reductive darkness’ which the architectural profession has been guilty of ever since Thatcher first attacked it have been the robust defensive actions which have been continually mounted by the medical, legal, and accounting professions, and by their respective professional bodies, against aggressively deregulating Thatcherite governments ever since 1979!

    The absolute minimum re-boot of the profession - if it is ever to be re-booted to its pre-1979 level - must surely now commence with the RIBA robustly challenging the government by, amongst other things, flooding the non-specialist press with ‘official letters’ which ask why the heck no architects have been appointed to the government’s “independent group” (which is to be headed by former London fire commissioner Ken Knight) to advise on the ‘immediate’ measures needed to ensure the safety of residents in hundreds of tower blocks around the country. This stinging ‘official slap on the face’ of the whole architectural profession is both quite outrageous and is also indicative of the very low level to which the profession has now fallen! Poisoned by Mammon and by Thatcher’s ‘spiv’s culture’, it has now pretty much reached the rock-bottom ‘point of no return’, has it not?

    For God’s sake then; the RIBA and its members should wake up, and do something, now, both on behalf of the architectural profession, and on behalf of the public, whose cause and need the once respected architect used, so long ago, it now seems, to disinterestedly serve and protect!

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  • Sarah McWilliam makes some well argued points but the issues here are I think about the conflicts of interest that exist within the design and construction process and in particular how to resolve on the one hand control over cost and on the other ensure design quality. The process inevitably becomes one of confrontation and compromise but in terms of regulation and safety the buck must stop with someone with proper authority and that in my view it has to be a lead or principle designer. Generally ,but not necessarily always, this should mean an architect for conventional building projects as he / she is the one person who is central to all design decision making.

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  • It is a huge pity we have so many half truths here, starting with Alan Dunlop suggesting architects "were working for both the contractor and the client when the building was being built". The architect works for the "client" and has a duty during the contract to act as "arbiter" between client and contractor - this is not the same as being employed by both. The industry has undoubtedly lost its way, now as Richard Saxon suggests relying on insurance to prop up competence. The US scenario outlined in Andrew Gibb's "go figure" comment wrongly claims that only architects can apply for building permits, but owners and licensed contractors can apply too and the problems are identical. Too much emphasis on value for money, not enough money available for independent checks. In California we have a procedure called "deputy inspection" where a qualified individual keeps a daily log and certifies compliance with approved documents. In the UK we have a golden opportunity to have properly trained site architects and Clerks of Works performing such a role, also covering design intent and shop drawings. This will ensure that expensive corrections and variations do not delay work in progress on site and deliver safe assets according to certified intent.

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  • Yes indeed thanks for pointing that out Tim. First of all no mention is made by me of the architect being "employed" by both. That would be a stupid thing to say. Second, the quote should have gone on to say that the architect administers the contract as arbiter and " honest broker" that was part of my original quote. However aj have done such a brilliant job raising this as an issue, stimulating much needed debate I let it stand, until you brought it up as a half truth and a huge pity.

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  • 'As part of its immediate response to Grenfell Tower, the government has set up an independent group, headed by former London fire commissioner Ken Knight, to advise on the 'immediate' measures needed to ensure the safety of residents in hundreds of tower blocks around the country.
    As - believe it or not - the London fire brigade apparently doesn't possess the highest available ladder and wound up borrowing one from a neighbouring authority to fight the Grenfell Tower fire, just how 'independent' is a committee chaired by Mr Knight?

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