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Analysis: Grenfell tragedy highlights architects' marginalisation

Grenfell tower fire crop
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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.’

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Readers' comments (11)

  • '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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