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Architects break silence on Grenfell

Grenfell one year on
  • 10 Comments

One year after the tragic fire, leading architects talk of an industry in shock and discuss the reasons why the profession has struggled to find its voice on the disaster. Ella Jessel reports

The opening sessions of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry saw the firms involved in the refurbishment of the high-rise, including Studio E Architects, accused of ‘inhumane’ corporate silence over their failure to provide key information to the investigation.

‘Despite their words of condolence to the victims, these corporates have no desire to assist this inquiry, even though their participation could save lives in the immediate future,’ said Stephanie Barwise, counsel for a group of core participants in the inquiry.

This damning accusation, whether fair or not, serves as a reminder that the public expects the construction industry to play its part in the ‘public search for truth’ over how the tragedy that claimed the lives of 72 people unfolded.

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© Anthony Coleman

It also highlights how, in the 12 months following the disaster, the industry has struggled to deliver a collective response to one of Britain’s worst peacetime disasters. This silence is one that the profession should be ‘ashamed of’, according to architect and TV presenter George Clarke, who lives close to the tower and is one of the few to have spoken out, recently launching a petition calling for a ban on combustible cladding.

But as the first anniversary passed – marked through a series of tributes, from a 72-second silence to remember each victim, to the charred tower and neighbouring buildings being floodlit in green on the night of 14 June, the profession has finally begun to speak out.

But why has it taken so long for architects to find their voice? 

With so much speculation about the causes, it is understandable that many have been ‘waiting for the facts’ to emerge from the inquiry before sticking their heads over the parapet. Others who have talked to the AJ have spoken about the challenge of striking the right note in the wake of a national tragedy. 

Any one of us might have been implicated in this tragedy

Teresa Borsuk

But while these have been, no doubt, contributing factors, other architects are now beginning to address the chilling realisation that, as Pollard Thomas Edwards’ Teresa Borsuk says: ‘Any one of us might have been implicated in this tragedy.’ This uncomfortable truth and its implications are at the heart of why some have felt unable to speak out about the fire, and go some way to explain the sympathy many architects express privately for Studio E Architects’ predicament.

The responses paint a picture of an industry deeply shaken by the disaster. Former RIBA president Jane Duncan says: ‘Every architect in the UK and around the world was shocked to the core by the disaster.’ She goes on to say that her practice immediately reviewed quality management across all of its projects.

Featherstone Young director Jeremy Young, whose practice is working pro bono to rebuild a boxing club that lost its gym in the fire, says: ‘It has removed the psychological safety net that meeting Building Regulations will always be enough, which in some ways is a good thing.’

Other architects speak of the renewed weight of responsibility felt in the aftermath of the fire. Borsuk says: ‘The tragedy at Grenfell has shifted the priorities. It has reinforced our sense of accountability, responsibility and duty of care.’

Architects also say the blaze has forced them to reflect on architecture’s failings and its place in the sometimes complex chain of contractors and subcontractors involved in projects. Orms director John McRae says: ‘We all need to question our consciences and, most importantly, have clearer lines of project responsibilities that are set out and agreed up-front, from the client all the way to suppliers, as we currently have a “pin the tail on the donkey” approach [to who is responsible] when issues arise.’

Many make connections between the disaster and how changes in procurement have affected quality. And some say it confirms their worst fears about the consequences of outsourcing in commissioning public works.

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we need to find a collective voice to call for change in how buildings are delivered

Russell Curtis

‘We have become resigned to the fact that design and build is the de facto method for delivering public buildings, and that architects are often excluded from the construction process at the very point at which they should be getting stuck in,’ says RCKa Architects director Russell Curtis. 

He adds: ‘If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we need to find a collective voice to call for fundamental change in how buildings are delivered.’

Bennetts Associates co-founder Rab Bennetts agrees, saying: ‘Grenfell should be the catalyst for culture change in the whole design and construction industry, which ought to re-establish a stronger, more central role for architects.’

He continues: ‘Some people have suggested this [demand] is a cynical ploy by architects to win more business, but it certainly isn’t that. It is entirely about how we design, make and operate buildings properly so that disasters like Grenfell don’t happen again.’

While there was concern at the absence of any architects on the expert fire safety panel initially convened by the government, the RIBA has become increasingly vocal, issuing a robust response to the Hackitt Review and running a fire safety conference exploring how the profession might move forward.

Speaking at the Protecting Lives conference at Portland Place, Duncan called the Grenfell Tower fire a ‘defining moment’ for the profession. She said: ‘This is the point at which we can speak up. We shouldn’t be just talking about buildings or regulations or construction materials. What we’re here for is people. We need to be out there fighting on behalf of our communities. It’s not the guy or girl next door that’s going to do it – it’s us.’

 

Q&A: architects speaking out

Rab bennetts 2 grey

Rab Bennetts, founding director, Bennetts Associates

Andrew beharrell bw

Andrew Beharrell, senior partner, Pollard Thomas Edward

Teresa borsuk

Teresa Borsuk partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards

George clarke image by lwp kommunikacio 1

George Clarke, creative director, George Clarke + Partners

Russell curtis, rcka

Russell Curtis, director, RCKa

Jane duncan

Jane Duncan, chair of the RIBA’s fire safety panel

John mcrae grey

John McRae, director, Orms

Nigel ostime 2

Nigel Ostime, project delivery director, Hawkins\Brown

Arnold tarling

Arnold Tarling, chartered surveyor

Luke tozer

Luke Tozer, director Pitman Tozer Architects

Geoff wilkinson sq bw

Geoff Wilkinson, construction consultant

Alan wright bw

Alan Wright, founding parter, bptw partnership

Rab bennetts 2 grey

Rab Bennetts, founding director, Bennetts Associates

Andrew beharrell bw

Andrew Beharrell, senior partner, Pollard Thomas Edward

Teresa borsuk

Teresa Borsuk, senior partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards

Jeremy young

Jeremy Young, director, Featherstone Young

   

Why has the profession been so quiet about what happened at Grenfell tower?

Teresa Borsuk The refurbishment at Grenfell was intended to improve lives. Although, hopefully, it was a one-off disaster, what happened is not a one-off problem. It is the catastrophic consequence of a profoundly dysfunctional system. The media has seized on matters that are technical, procedural, legal and extremely complex before we have clear evidence. So any cautious or nuanced statements can sound like a weak cover-up in support of our profession or a blanket criticism of contractors. In truth, any one of us might have been implicated in this tragedy.This is a period both of deep reflection and immediate action. The system clearly needs to change. We need the detail and the evidence to expedite that.

Jeremy Young  A lot of architects realise or fear they could have been involved in a project where this type of cladding was used, either through direct choice, being part of a committee decision, or just left out of the process to select the product altogether. I don’t think you stand up and make a big noise when you know this.

George Clarke  I have absolutely no idea. I’m ashamed of my own industry. I’m ashamed that the system that should care for those in social housing doesn’t actually care.

’I’m ashamed of my own industry’

George Clarke

Luke Tozer  It should be a wake-up call. We have been too marginalised and are regarded as dealing only with how the building looks, rather than how it performs, too. The difficulty the RIBA has had in getting its voice heard by government has been alarming and a warning to us all. It is understandably problematic during a review and a public inquiry to come out publicly and call the causes of the disaster. But, even so, it is essential that we are clear on the dysfunctional elements of the current culture of procurement and value engineering in housing. It may not have caused the disaster on its own, but there’s no doubt in my mind that a more rigorous and central role of the architect in delivery of housing would help reduce the chances of this recurring in the future.

John McRae  The profession has been waiting for the facts to emerge from the inquiry in order to make considered comment, rather than mere speculation. Now that the facts are beginning to emerge, the profession needs to discuss how the shortcomings can be addressed. I understand the RIBA has been voicing opinion to government, but it would be useful for it to lead discussions with clients and other design team members to find a better way of delivering the best possible quality of building.

Nigel Ostime A key message for the construction industry as a whole is the need for strong leadership. The fragmented nature of the industry and the way buildings and building maintenance are procured has been highlighted by all the recent building failures, most critically at Grenfell Tower. For its part, the architectural profession has been gradually sidelined over the last 50 years but there has been no replacement for the over-arching role architects used to provide, that exists from inception to completion of a project, and is governed by a mandatory code of conduct and professional standards.

Geoff Wilkinson It is difficult to comment on the specifics but the response by all parties has been woeful – we are a year on and virtually nothing has changed. Whilst we wait for the government to regulate industry could have done far more to create best practice guides and adopt these.

 

A year on from the Grenfell disaster, what do you think the profession has learned? 

Teresa Borsuk The tragedy has brought matters to a head. It has made the profession and the construction industry reflect on its failings. It has focused individual accountability for procurement, specification, design, construction, inspection and consequent safety. It has heightened the big gaps in roles and responsibilities and the inadequacies of the process. The whole is not necessarily the sum of its parts. It has demonstrated how fiendishly complex it is to put together a building, the plethora of often contradictory regulations with confusing and ambiguous guidance and overlapping layers of compliance. It has revealed the inadequacy of Building Regulations and how they have not kept up with technology or current needs. It has highlighted the dilemma of competing agendas – cost versus value, energy versus safety, style versus sustainability. It has confirmed the need for an independent inspection and quality assurance regime. The lesson that does not seem to have been learned is that high-rise buildings are inherently more risky, more complex and more expensive than low and mid-rise. 

George Clarke That combustible materials on high-risk buildings and on buildings where there is a significant risk to public safety, such as schools and hospitals, is a stupid idea. We’ve also learnt that there needs to be systematic change in the way we maintain and refurbish council housing stock. In my view, there are many 1960s and ’70s buildings that are unsafe and not fit for purpose.

Russell Curtis  The 12 months since Grenfell have provided architects with an opportunity for reflection but most, I suspect, were already all too well aware of the fundamental flaws in public commissioning culture, which must have played at least some part in the tragedy. We’ve become resigned to the fact that design and build is the de facto method for delivering public buildings, and that architects are often excluded from the construction process at the very point at which they should be getting stuck in. It’s clear that this approach is no longer delivering the cost and time certainty that public clients expect, yet despite this, quality is still diminished. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we need to find a collective voice to call for fundamental change in how buildings are delivered. 

’We’ve become resigned to the fact that design and build is the de facto method for delivering public buildings’

Russell Curtis

Jane Duncan  The consultant fire engineers upon whom we have relied may or may not be competent, but we are the only ones who have the strategic long-term view of the impact of our designs. We need to know more about how and when to act during a project process, and have the confidence to take strategic decisions. 

Arnold Tarling That warnings raised by numerous people has been ignored by those in authority. That value engineering (cost cutting) has consequences. That BBA certificates and claims by manufacturers cannot be trusted - test reports should be made freely available.

Geoff Wilkinson  That we have allowed a culture of cost to take over from one of safety.

 

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© Anthony Coleman

 

How has Grenfell affected the way you work?

Luke Tozer There has been an immediate need to reassure clients that the buildings we design are safe and robust, especially in an environment where regulations are changing. At a more detailed level, all our housing projects have been designed or redesigned to use mineral wool insulation, leading to deeper wall constructions. All our taller housing projects have been designed with sprinklers and externally with brick or stone cladding.

Nigel Ostime ‘There has been no direct impact on the way we work but the whole architectural profession is of course aware of the issues Grenfell raised, and design and specification decisions are made with greater scrutiny. The outcome of the inquiry may well lead to changes to regulations and to the way quality is managed and monitored and these can only be for the good. One outcome of the spotlight shining on our industry is the better understanding of what architects mean by ‘quality’. It is not – as we all know - ‘higher cost’. Quality in that sense is a variable to be agreed at the outset of a project. It is based on an understanding of value and of agreeing the brief and the desired outcomes and then delivering them. It is providing a focus on consistency and risk management throughout the entire project cycle.

Teresa Borsuk The tragedy at Grenfell has shifted the priorities. It has reinforced our sense of accountability, responsibility and duty of care. Consideration of occupants’ safety has reasserted its primacy in the design agenda. We are even more focused on what we specify and what we draw. It has changed our approach to the selection of materials. We are more rigorous in our pursuit of third party certification of performance and interrogate warranties more carefully. We are finding that clients, too, are being more conservative, generally being cautious of cladding systems and saying no to any flammable or combustible building materials. Many are insisting on exceeding current standards and regulations by, for example, including sprinklers and adding extra fire stairs.  

‘It has reinforced our sense of accountability, responsibility and duty of care’

Teresa Borsuk

Jeremy Young  Definitely more questioning and skeptical about the performance of materials. It has removed the psychological safety net that meeting building regulations will always be enough, which in some ways is a good thing.

 

What do you think needs to happen to make sure it never happens again? 

Andrew Beharrell  We need better regulation, not more regulation. The Hackitt Report correctly identifies the confusion and complexity of the current regulations. Compliance does not mean quality – and may not even provide fitness-for-purpose. Part of the problem is the conflict between different objectives, for example fire safety and energy performance. Part of the answer could be a new publicly funded research and warranty body, which is free of commercial conflicts of interest. The industry cannot be left to regulate itself. We need a major overhaul of the procurement system. Again, Hackitt is right to focus on systemic reform and avoid the quick fix of simply banning certain materials. At its best, the design and build system of procurement (which has become near-universal in housing construction) can provide an integrated design and construction service, with centralised responsibility, team working and a mature understanding of cost and value. But it can also do the opposite: passing responsibility down the line, stripping out quality to meet unrealistic cost targets, de-skilling the participants and creating adversarial relationships. This is not simply the fault of contractors – it is the system which the whole industry has wished upon itself. 

John McRae  I am not convinced that more regulation is required however greater clarity in the current approved documents (for compliance with building regulations) is paramount. There has been very little focus on the fact that ‘The Approved Documents provide guidance on ways to meet the building regulations’. These documents are used day to day yet are merely guidance and open to interpretation by designers, approved inspectors and contractors. There are instances where absolute clarity e.g. such as in the use of non-combustible materials in buildings over 18m is required. What is required is greater responsibility not regulation. A complete root and branch change in the way projects are set up, designed, procured, inspected and delivered is required.

Jane Duncan It is going to take some time for us to get to the point when it ‘never happens again’. There were serious and multiple failures at Grenfell, which we are only now learning about in the Inquiry reports. That said, there are immediate changes to the Building Regulations guidance (Approved Document B) which could be made now to clarify design and specification selections, and safeguard the public: the government has been called on to ban desk-top studies (which are used to select materials without reliance on full-scale fire tests), ban combustible cladding and insulation on high-rise and complex buildings, insist on retrofitting of sprinklers and require alternative means of escape.

George Clarke The Hackitt Report was a disappointment. It was weak at a time when we needed strength and common-sense change. It didn’t go far enough. It said ‘banning combustible materials wouldn’t get to the root cause of the problem’. Of course it wouldn’t, as the systemic problems are huge. But it would have got to the root cause of the spread of the fire and the main reason why 72 people lost their lives.

Geoff Wilkinson In my opinion its mostly a question of competency, too little focus has been put on fire safety within the training of all professions. The recommendation that construction phase plans must be approved prior to commencement of work is definitely a good move forward and restrictions on value engineering and substitution of materials without reference back to the original design concepts is another. Architects should be retained throughout the process to ensure this golden thread is maintained.

Rab Bennetts  A year has passed and we are only just beginning to find out exactly what went wrong, from combustible cladding to recent information about fire doors and dry risers not being compliant. No one can be expected to incriminate themselves at the public inquiry when there is a prospect of a criminal prosecution hanging over the whole proceedings. There’s little doubt the regulations were not adequate, but it hasn’t been shown yet if there were new regulations ready and waiting to be implemented (in England), had the government not been anti-regulation in principle. Judith Hackitt’s report was decidedly limited in scope, as it didn’t fully address how buildings are designed, procured and implemented. Grenfell, I feel, should be the catalyst for culture change in the whole design and construction industry, which ought to re-establish a stronger, more central role for architects. Some people have suggested this is a cynical ploy by architects to win more business but it certainly isn’t that; it is entirely about how we design, make and operate buildings properly so that disasters like Grenfell don’t happen again.  

I feel, should be the catalyst for culture change in the whole design and construction industry, which ought to re-establish a stronger, more central role for architects.

Rab Bennetts

 

Alan Wright We are surprised that the Hackitt report has not recommended immediate changes in the building regulations to clarify the wording of the regulations beyond doubt (rather than a wholesale redraft) and to restrict the use of combustible materials far more comprehensibly particularly in the external walls of buildings, and wonder why Hackitt did not extend the scope of sprinklers to cover more or all buildings. We anticipate a more central role in delivery that will inevitably involve taking on more responsibility for what actually gets built, the profession will need to ensure appropriate training is given.

Jeremy Young I think it’s pretty clear that the desire to sell cheap materials has overtaken the regulatory framework. Manufacturers’ failure at self-regulation, or creeping influence over the regulatory framework, is a perennial problem across all industries. I do not know the details of how the current framework works, but it’s clear it doesn’t work well enough and needs more independence, and to listen more to dissenting voices. Architects are a generally well-educated bunch, but we need impartial experts to guide us via strong independent regulation - we aren’t fire engineers.

  • 10 Comments

Readers' comments (10)

  • Everybody needs to read the evidence given by Arup's fire expert and take note of it.

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  • There is no question the cladding was at fault, but what was the motive for re-cladding? Paragraph 4.12 of the original Grenfell Tower Planning Application (10.01.14 APP NO. PP/12/04097 /Q18) states: “Due to its height the tower is visible from the two adjacent Conservation Areas. The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area. Therefore views into and out of the conservation areas will be improved by the proposals.”

    This tragedy shines a light on the darkest impulses in British society – privileging the privileged at the expense of 'others'.

    Architects that engage in ‘regen’ projects should be under no illusion as to who they are serving.

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  • Frances Maria

    In response to E. Dennison's comment:

    One of my areas of specialism is conservation, and on the face of it, it seems reasonable to want to improve the views of a building which is visible from two conservation areas. However, there are two other issues to consider here, upon which the argument in favour of improving the views from the conservation areas can be questioned.

    Firstly, modern materials such as cladding can never enhance a conservation area, and indeed do exactly the opposite. It would be like putting UPVC windows on a building in a conservation area and saying that it improves the appearance;

    Secondly, Grenfell Tower was designed in a brutalist style and was meant to be of bare concrete. Whatever one may feel about brutalism, it is part of the UK's architectural history and therefore to cover the building in modern cladding changes is architectural style. If anything, the building in its original form would have been far more compatible with the adjacent conservation areas.

    In my view, the decision to clad this building in this dreadful combustible material was to modernise its appearance and no doubt improve its energy performance too. It was clearly felt that those living in the neighbouring areas would prefer to look at a tower with a modern 21st century appearance, rather than a dated 1970s concrete block. Either the author of the document does not understand conservation areas, or else the reference to conservation areas is an excuse to justify the change

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  • Geoff Williams

    Little reference has been made to the electrical wiring. cabling usually features in major fires and it is claimed that 40% of the fires Worldwide have been directly caused due to short circuits, voltage hikes and overload. In public flats many occupants have would be electricians and tamper and fireproof cables are recommended.

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  • Frances Maria

    The Inquiry has appointed an expert to look at electrical issues and he will report back in due course

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  • I am a retired firefighter with interest in the Grenfell Tower disaster and not happy with Inquiries so far. The first point I would like to make is to congratulate the architect profession on some reaction to this catstrophy. I remember being disgusted in the wake of the Ronnan Point collapse that the BBC. tv. complained months after the tragedy, they could not get any architect to give an interview on the subject? Now however we have the internet and George Clarke to inform us ordinary ignorant public plebs, this is a great step forward. I realise that you experts feel reluctant to comment when you are not in possession of the full facts, this is something you must get over! The democratic system cannot work unless the public are informed and educated immediately after a disaster. You do not have to comment in detail on things you do not know but you do have expertise, that can be imparted to the benefit to the public and politicians, see the input of George Clarke. You all have valid expert opinions and by keeping them private you have allowed; 1. The Hackitt whitewash which described the situation well but refused to recomend anything that might prevent any loss of life in the future because she did not want to be 'PRESCRIPTIVE'. 2. A hopelessly inefective government white paper that suggests two options that would manage to change hardly anthing at all? 3. An Inquiry hamstrung by many 'expert' advisers impeded by conflicts of interest and terms of reference that prevent it investigating the political erosion of the nation's Building Control System over the last thirty years, that allowed the illegal refurbishment of Grenfell Tower to take place?
    I invite Goerge Clarke and the rest of you experts to join me in campaigning for RESTORATION OF PROPER PHYSICAL TESTING OF NEW BUILDING MATERIALS AND SYTSTEMS BEFORE THE AWARDING OF A CERTIFICATE FOR USE IN BUILDINGS?

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  • And still nothing from Studio E, the firm with a claim to fame designing schools across Britain.
    Let that sink in.... schools. soulless ones on first glance.

    ANYONE CARE TO INVESTIGATE THEIR WHOLESOMENESS ?!!!!

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  • Contrary to the AJ’s assertion that ‘in the 12 months following the disaster, the industry has struggled to deliver a collective response to one of Britain’s worst peacetime disasters’, within five weeks of the fire Architects for Social Housing had released this report on its technical, managerial and political causes. Unfortunately, nothing in the report Dr. Barbara Lane has submitted to the Grenfell Inquiry a year later contradicts our analysis of its technical causes:

    https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/the-truth-about-grenfell-tower-a-report-by-architects-for-social-housing/

    It’s disappointing to read George Clarke repeat the inaccurate and stereotypical description of 1960s and 1970s buildings as ‘unsafe and not fit for purpose’. As every architect should recognise by now, the cause of the fire was the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, not its construction. To repeat this lazy trope about post-war social housing is to contribute to the disinformation about the Grenfell Tower fire propagated by politicians, journalists and think tanks in order to further the same estate regeneration programme within which the primarily cosmetic refurbishment of the tower was carried out.

    What the AJ’s collective lamentation doesn’t mention is London’s estate regeneration programme, and the collusion of the architectural profession in the privatisation of council housing it is enabling across the capital. From Oval Quarter in Brixton to Orchard Village in Rainham, Solomon’s Passage in Peckham to Portobello Square in Notting Hill, residents of these new developments are complaining about the same threats to their safety as those the residents of Grenfell Tower complained about, and like them are being ignored by the private management organisations to which the councils are handing over its housing stock.

    An article that professes to discuss the consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire on the architectural profession without raising the estate regeneration programme can only be another instance of the profession’s continuing refusal to face up to and debate the role of architects in London’s housing crisis.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • In February 2009, eight years before the Grenfell Tower fire, Urban Initiatives Studio, a practice specialising in urban design, planning and change management, was appointed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to create a masterplan for the regeneration of Notting Barns South, an 18 hectare site in North Kensington containing the Silchester and Lancaster West estates, including Grenfell Tower. 6 months later they produced Notting Barns South: Draft Final Masterplan Report, which included the following observations and recommendations, beginning with this Executive Summary:

    ‘The area suffers from housing stock in need of ongoing and expensive refurbishment, a range of social deprivation and other issues often associated with large post-war housing estates. This context means that land values are artificially depressed closer to the centre. The Far-sighted Option aims to maximise overall value in the long term and create a high quality new neighbourhood. This requires a number of significant interventions. We estimate that the project could deliver significant returns to the council. In order to present the most attractive offer in a competitive bidding process the winning consortium would need to adopt the most optimistic approach to cost and/or values.’

    To back up the necessity of the council adopting their proposals, the report also addresses what it calls Issues and Opportunities, the former of which include the following:

    ‘Although a diverse population in terms of age, ethnic and religious backgrounds, the area is limited in terms of its economic profile and is predominantly made up of social housing tenants. The ward of Notting Barns South suffers substantial issues of deprivation relating to employment, health and crime, however, the intensity of deprivation varies. The Lancaster West estate (east) is within the 10 per cent most deprived areas in the country, and similarly crime is more severe in the east of the study area.’

    Now, in fact, as can be verified by the Indices of Deprivation 2015 interactive map, although Lancaster West estate does lie within the 10 per cent most deprived areas, its crime rates are shared by 40 per cent of areas, and is in fact far lower than in surrounding areas where terraced housing predominates. This accords with the figures on every estate ASH has researched, from Broadwater Farm to Aylesbury and Central Hill. Behind the unsubstantiated and easily-accepted assertions of reports like this one, crime levels on council estates are in fact consistently lower than in the surrounding area, contradicting everything we are told about council estates and their communities by terrace-dwelling journalists and developer-lobbied politicians. Not only are estates not ‘breeding grounds’ for crime, as they are characterised in both Fleet Street and Westminster, but the close-knit communities that form within them significantly reduce crime rates. As in just about everything else being said about council estates in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, estates as homes to anti-social behaviour, crime and drug dealing is another myth that is being used by architects, developers, councils, journalists and politicians to promote estate demolition, privatisation and redevelopment.

    In the Urban Initiatives report, particular attention is given to the development options on the towers in the area, starting with the four 22-storey towers on the Silchester estate:

    ‘It would be very challenging for the scheme to reprovide this number of homes should they be demolished. Therefore our preferred approach is to assume retention and refurbishment. In certain cases it may be possible to transfer these towers to private sector developers to provide private sale or rent units.’

    Grenfell Tower, by contrast, has no such reprieve:

    ‘We considered that the appearance of this building and the way in which it meets the ground BLIGHTS much of the area east of Latimer Road Station. It also provides no outdoor space for residents and is likely to be of a type of construction that is hard to adapt. It does contain 120 homes. On balance our preferred approach is to assume demolition.’

    The report goes on to outline the Phasing and Delivery of the proposed 15-20-year masterplan, from which we have extracted the following:

    Phase 1. ‘Includes the construction of the new school immediately to the east of the railway line on the existing Games Court and Kensington Sports car park. Adjacent to the station two private 12-storey towers are erected.’

    Phase 2. ‘East of the railway the eastern part of Lancaster West is demolished together with Grenfell Tower. This building BLIGHTS the area, provides no outdoor space for residents and is difficult to refurbish. The remainder of Lancaster, which is being refurbished, is completed into a closed street block with infill development. By the end of this phase the regeneration of the Silchester and Lancaster area is almost complete.’

    Citing the area as providing no outdoor space for residents as a justification for the demolition of Grenfell Tower in Phase 2 is ironic at best given that Phase 1 began with building the Kensington Aldrige Academy – which was also designed by Studio E Architects – on that outdoor space, thereby taking it away from residents; but like the stereotypes about crime in the area this doesn’t halt the concluding phases, when the ‘Far-sighted Option’ that aims to ‘maximise the overall value’ of the area comes into its own:

    Phase 3. ‘This phase realises a large proportion of high-end, high-value market housing.’

    Phase 4. ‘New housing can benefit from the proximity to and overlooking of the park, and market housing is expected to realise increased values.’

    Phase 5. ‘During this phase 610 units are developed or refurbished with a high percentage of private units.’

    All of which leads the authors of this report, Matthias Wunderlich, Stuart Gray and Dan Hill, to the following conclusions:

    ‘The farsighted option for the masterplan presented within this report has the potential to transform the social and physical characteristics of Notting Barns in a positive manner. Because of the existing tenure mix and the decline of Right to Buy, the estate will never become a more mixed and integrated community. This work shows how sensitive the potential residual land values are to residential sale values and, in particular, to the potential values for high end flats and houses. To achieve the highest values, the area will need to undergo significant change to improve its visual appearance.’

    Following the financial crash, house prices in London in 2009 had fallen for the first time in decades; and presumably for this reason, which may have dissuaded development partners, Kensington and Chelsea council declined the ‘Far-sighted Option’ and chose, instead, what the report called the ‘Early Value Option’. In its broad outlines this is the masterplan which, updated in May 2016 by CBRE building consultancy, continued to threaten the residents of the Silchester estate with the demolition and redevelopment of their homes – more recent plans for which were exhibited in April 2017 – and has already built the Academy on the playing fields, but which also refurbished Lancaster West estate, including Grenfell Tower. The reason for doing so, however, had not changed from that which targeted it for demolition as a ‘blight’ on the area – that is, its APPEARANCE.

    The 2014 planning application (ref. PP/12/04097/Q18) for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower reads:

    ‘The materials proposed will provide the building with a fresh APPEARANCE that will not be harmful to the area or views around it. Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east. The changes to the existing tower will improve its APPEARANCE especially when viewed from the surrounding area. Therefore views into and out of the conservation areas will be improved by the proposals.’

    The planning considerations listed include: ‘The impact of the works on the APPEARANCE of the building and area, and views from the adjacent conservation area.’ The materials used on the external faces of the building used were chosen ‘To accord with the development plan by ensuring that the character and APPEARANCE of the area are preserved and living conditions of those living near the development suitably protected’. While the windows and doors were chosen ‘To ensure the APPEARANCE of the development is satisfactory. The re-clad materials and new windows will represent a significant improvement to the environmental performance of the building and to its physical APPEARANCE.’ The application concludes: ‘The changes to the external APPEARANCE of the building will also provide positive enhancements to the APPEARANCE of the area.’

    On the webpage (since removed from their site) where Grenfell Tower was listed as a case study, Rydon wrote: ‘Rain screen cladding, replacement windows and curtain wall façades have been fitted giving the building a fresher, modern LOOK.’ And Nicholas Paget-Brown, the now ex-Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Conservative council, is quoted on the council webpage on the refurbishment as saying: ‘It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external APPEARANCE of the tower.’

    Studio E Architects’ webpage on Grenfell Tower – sent to us by an architect before it was taken down – showed an artists’ impression for the client of what the refurbishment would look like, complete with the white, middle class residents drawn to attract investors into the area, and who are so at odds with the racial and class demographic of the tower revealed by the hundreds of photographs of missing residents put up around the burnt out carcass of the building by families and friends. This is the external view of the Grenfell Tower for which the people who lived inside the building died.

    Should the AJ ever wish to write an article about the responsibility of the architectural profession for the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as for what is happening across London through their collaboration in the estate regeneration programme, please fell free to use this information, which may be found with much else besides in our report, The Truth about Grenfell Tower, on the ASH website.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • I know I've been banging on about it since the Dartington outrage, but we need to pension of the Building Regulations and adopt- and I mean right now - The International Building Code. Comprehensive and clear, prescriptive and educational it should be a required study for all architects, designers and construction professionals.

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