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Anger at absence of architects on Grenfell fire expert panel

Grenfell tower fire crop
  • 12 Comments

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.

Comments:

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.

 

 

  • 12 Comments

Readers' comments (12)

  • John Kellett

    If there is no Architect on the panel, why is a chartered surveyor? Architects are THE lead designer on most building projects NOT Surveyors. Architects hold the design responsibility for the design of most buildings, including Grenfell Tower, for both their original design and their refurbishment. Can we ask, as the leading building design profession why the RICS is represented and not the RIBA. As a profession we have been here before, architects will again be made the scapegoat for a disaster without any evidence. The current panel build-up does not appear to be thought-out properly. The inquiry is very important and not the place for any profession to seek to gain over others.
    The RIBA must protest at the highest level, and if not heard shout even louder across the media. This appears to be just another example of the Government's side-lining of our profession.
    WHY is the profession not represented on the panel? Even an answer to that obvious question would be helpful.

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  • Stelios Voutsadakis

    Is there anyone at the RIBA to show leadership? To set up an experts panel to investigate the Grenfell Tower fire and a sample of other tower blocks and report well before this group does.

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  • joseph b fitzgerald

    The architect was not generally appointed to supervise but did carry out periodic inspections during construction !

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  • Assuming an architect was the project supervisor then either he was incompetent.or asleep else how were banned materials used in the construction process? Where are the agrement certificates? Don't want any more of those fellows on investigative committees.
    Badminton Home

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  • The lack of representation is typical of successive governments failing to understand the building process. Architects are the lead consultant, they produce the drawings + specifications. They have the expertise in balancing social issues with construction, science and the arts. Our role over the past 30 years has been diluted, which we must look to ourselves and ask why? But today, there is no change in the process of building, architects are still the lead consultant.

    This is not about why the RICS are on the panel and not the RIBA. This is about a potential white wash by the government. Reports will be written, hands will be slapped and no change will be introduced to challenge 30 years of regressive processes in the industry. The RIBA’s current approach is ineffective. If ministers are not listening to you, as John Kellett states, shout louder. We will support you as members but we need more effective leadership from the RIBA in challenging the government. Use the media, social and traditional and whatever other means we must to mount a challenge.

    Why are we so limp? Part of the issue maybe the fact that as per AJ statistics the profession is made up of white middle class men, who perhaps do not have the drive or hunger to protest and make their voices heard. I hope not!

    The life of an architect is becoming progressively challenging and yet we are still responsible. We are regulated and yet so many who are responsible for changing specifications to increase their profits at the expense of safety are hardly regulated. Fees are not representative of the services and responsibility we have to provide, the industry has been attacking our services for years and the profession gave it away willingly, government do not think we are relevant and the industry finds us weak as a profession.

    Architects do not face this in other countries, governments recognise the professions role in society. So in the face of the tragic events at Grenfell, Brexit and growing competition internationally, we as a profession need to find our feet and act now, from industry to educators/students and the RIBA. Lead the way RIBA!!!

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  • Despite rubbish reality programmes like Grand Designs there is massive ignorance among the public and politicians as to the role of the architect. Ask anyone, including the chattering classes, to name their favourite architect and you will be met with blank stares. This attitude is reinforced by philistines like Michael Gove and the gutter press who view the profession as arrogant purvryors of ugliness. No wonder the government ignores us, and it always has.

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  • Geoff Williams

    Architects provide Project Leadership and set the tone for the appearance of the building. They also control the cost element and often put pressure on budgeting for essential services in public buildings. this invariably forces Consultants to look at the price motive rather than quality and life span. For instance, the BSI fire standard, BS6387, for electric cables, leaves much to be desired. It must be remembered that 40% of fires Worldwide is caused by an electric cable malfunction. It is, therefore, imperative that both Architects and Electrical Consultants are represented on the panel of experts.

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  • George Gaduzo

    Sadly the profession lost its position at head of the construction table a long time ago. This is partly due to past arrogant attitudes displayed by some, designs that we're held up before all and celebrated as meriting awards that quite frankly could only be explained by the use of airy fairy architectural journalistic techno speak that possibly only the author had any clue about what was trying to be conveyed (and that's debatable), and the proliferation of buildings where form dominated at the cost of function. Add to this an over-inflated sense of selfworth - self praise is no recommendation- and you have the situation today. There are indeed some very good architects and their work requires no explanation, its beautiful in form and practical in function and they are among the elite few. For the rest, the majority of whom are not in the elite classes, the profession has had to try to regain its foothold by proving to be better listeners, more open to criticism, open to change, and humbly accept any invite to the table, even if its not at the head.

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  • Since qualifying as as a surveyor what I have always find deeply disheartening is the dis-functional relationship between two of the key professionals in the building construction industry, architects and surveyors. From my experience, and as I read in these comments I am reminded of the amount of attention given to maintaining a sense of them and us between the two professions. In some small way is this a reflection of the fragmented state of the construction industry in the UK we are now faced with? The fire at Grenfell Tower has tragically exposed how the construction industry in this country is failing to provide comfortable and safe places for people to live and work in. A time now for us all to work together to bring changes to benefit us all?

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  • For Mr Assael - Perhaps there are no architects because there's doubt about their competence, for example mis-spelling the name of the incinerated tower block (and the silly mistake of having all your partners claim to be members of the ARB)

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