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Grenfell fire: what now for the housing sector?

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As well as having an immediate impact on public‑sector housing, June’s awful events are creating longer-term issues for the industry, writes Colin Marrs

Following June’s horrific Grenfell Tower inferno, professionals responsible for delivering new homes are under unprecedented scrutiny. Architects’ social housing landlord clients have been quick to react – ordering checks of building materials, carrying out new fire safety assessments and, in some cases, reworking schemes sitting on the drawing board. The AJ has learned that the scale of these vital checks is beginning to strain the ability of public housing landlords to work on new projects.

But the effect of the awful events at Grenfell on public sector housing projects is only part of the story. Talking to architects, we have also discovered that worried private sector operators are taking urgent action to prevent concerns about the disaster from impacting on sales of high-rise apartments. In addition, some voices are also calling for a fundamental rethink of our approach to post-war tower blocks and estate regeneration. 

Perhaps understandably, action to date by local authorities seems to be focused on properties on sites within their ownership. Councils appear to be refraining from using their powers under the 2004 Housing Act to enforce checks of private residential property. Central government is also taking no steps to force private landlords to fire-test buildings that might be at risk, saying merely that it expects private landlords to be responsible and carry out checks.

Grenfell © paul s hird

Grenfell © paul s hird

Source: Paul S Hird

View of Grenfell Tower from Latimer Road tube station

However, many private sector landlords are proactively examining their materials and construction methods as a top priority. ‘Where they feel there is the slightest doubt, they have pursued more thorough investigations,’ according to Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation. ‘Attention will in due course focus on the forthcoming public inquiry and we will seek to be helpful in providing private sector input into that.’ 

The apparent failure of building materials at Grenfell Tower resulted in the tragic loss of at least 80 lives, including children. It would have been odd had the sector not embarked on some deep soul-searching and auditing of projects following the terrible events. But apart from any feeling of moral duty, the private sector also faces a commercial imperative to ensure that its buildings are safe. 

‘We are seeing interest in the fire safety of apartments from the market, it’s a hot topic. Purchasers are requesting confirmation of the use of sprinklers, even though this may impact insurance premiums,’ says Shevaughn Rieck, partner at Farrells. Sally Lewis, founding director of Stitch Architects, says one of her clients has requested that the practice redraws a scheme to include sprinklers. ‘They are only legally required to do this in buildings above 30m,’ she says, ‘but have asked us to put them in the lower buildings on the site.’

There will be a lot less appetite for purchasing above floor 12 – everyone now knows the fire brigade’s ladders don’t reach higher than that

Such simple changes, Lewis says, can have major design implications. ‘Installing sprinklers requires the addition of more units to offset the cost – although it is only a marginal number,’ she says. She explains that adding sprinklers will also allow changes to the size of lobbies – current building regulations restrict the distance residents have to travel through smoke in unsprinklered buildings. ‘As well as this, flat front doors can open onto an open space without the need for separation from main corridors,’ she says.

Elsewhere, architects are being brought in by private sector clients to help reassure prospective buyers about the safety of their buildings. Grenfell has only served to amplify existing concerns over the state of the market for apartments – particularly at the top end in London. One source says: ‘There is a real concern, that in future, there will be a lot less appetite for purchasing above floor 12 – everyone now knows that the fire brigade’s ladders don’t reach higher than that.’

A number of practices we have talked to have already undertaken audits of their previous high rise projects. ‘Understandably the developers and prospective purchasers of high rise apartments have been asking questions in relation to means of escape, cladding and insulation types,’ according to Hal Currey, director at Hal Architects. ‘We have been talking to one client about capturing this information on a single A4 page – similar to an Energy Performance Certificate – so that the key information is clearly represented and easy to understand.’



Source: Matt Buck

Chalcots Estate, Camden, was refurbished by HTA

But Félicie Krikler, director at Assael Associates, points out that architects – who are often replaced after planning has been achieved, do not always have a full overview of materials used. Often, value engineering means that the materials that architects specified are replaced after their involvement has ended. ‘It depends on whether we were appointed to implement the project through to completion,’ she says.

Nonetheless, architects are keen to help restore confidence in the buildings they are designing, and none is complaining about the extra tasks they are undertaking. Stephen Witherford, director of Witherford Watson Mann, hopes Grenfell will mark a turning point from which value engineering is balanced better with social aims.

‘The ambition for every public project has to be to make progressive and enlightened work,’ he says, ‘where observation and informed conversations underpin an empathetic imagination.  This is patient work. It requires a culture of construction that has the skill to make things in a lasting way, a way that supports a better way to live and is incentivised by the responsibility for the quality and care of what is being made for the long term.’

Perceptions about fire safety have become so important that some developers are seeking replacement materials for their buildings, even if they are known to be resilient, according to Chris Brown, chief executive of Igloo Regeneration. ‘Some manufacturers’ products have become quite high profile, and we are seeing a reluctance to have these products on site. Even though a high-resistance material might have been specified, because it is manufactured by a company in the press, there is reluctance to keep it on site.

It is definitely having a slowdown effect as client resources are directed to checking prior projects

However, some believe that the private sector will now turn away from high rise blocks well before regulations can have any effect. The pre-existing slump in demand for high-end, high rise apartments in central London will only be exacerbated by the reaction to Grenfell among purchasers, one expert says. ‘The market always moves faster than regulations. It will have gone through a whole cycle before new regulations are adopted. I would be surprised if there isn’t a fundamental rethink on how many towers the private sector is bringing forward,’ he says.

Back in the affordable housing sector, one architect, who did not want to be named, told the AJ that councils’ understandable desire to check their buildings are safe is putting huge demands on architects. Local authorities are landlords for 3.9 million households in England alone, and have been quick to commission new checks on their buildings – with many going far beyond the official government request to identify buildings using aluminium composite material cladding.

‘A number of companies which have built flats for councils are being bombarded by information requests,’ the source said. ‘These developers are going back to their architects, who are having to provide information for stuff they built six or seven years ago. They are not getting paid for it and it is a big drain on resources.’

The housing association sector has also been busy checking the safety of its building stock. A spokesperson for association Catalyst says it always considers and implements fire strategies from the outset of building projects, ensuring that contractors and architects are aware of the latest building regulations. However, Catalyst  says that: ‘Following the fire, we are carrying out an additional thorough review to make absolutely certain that we’ve taken all the precautions we can to keep people safe.’

Blackfriars 2 alumasc

Blackfriars 2 alumasc

Black Friars Court, Salford, is one of many residential towers to have its cladding tested

As with councils, the focus on fire safety is having a knock-on effect on the ability of associations to deal with other areas, including work on new development projects. One architect says: ‘The housing association I am working with is under a huge amount of resource pressure. Lots of work teams have been diverted into the check. It is inevitable, although it is causing delays to other work.’ Citing her experience with one private client, Krikler says: ‘It is definitely having a slowdown effect as client resources are directed to checking prior projects.’

Government data which would allow an objective assessment of whether, following Grenfell, there has been a significant slowdown to the progression of new schemes will only be released in time. But planning consultant Mike Kiely worries that it will show a ‘big hiatus’, citing another factor – council or council-appointed building regulations officers increasing the intensity of their assessments.

However, it is unclear whether the slowdown will affect the rate of planning application submissions.  ‘It shouldn’t really slow down planning applications because the level of detail where judgements on materials are made comes later down the line,’ Keily says. ‘Having said that, some clients may sit on applications until they have checked what they have ordered.’

Igloo Regeneration’s Brown says the current pause in progressing schemes should only prove brief. ‘The changes we are making on one of our projects is only going to take two or three weeks – it is simply a minor design change.’ But even if the industry soon gets back into its rhythm, the forthcoming public inquiry is just one factor that mean architects have some deep long-term thinking about how they operate.

In the main there is not a problem with the actual 60s and 70s blocks themselves. Concrete is generally not flammable

In the longer term, the change in mood around the built environment means that architects face a number of challenges. In the intense emotion after Grenfell, the whole future of high rise post-war council blocks came under question. Immediately after the fire, London mayor Sadiq Khan wrote in the Observer that it ‘may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down’. 

But Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, says the blanket destruction of Brutalist towers would be a mistake. He says: ‘In the main there is not a problem with the actual 60s and 70s blocks themselves. Concrete is generally not flammable as long as the various elements like fire doors and smoke vents are performing properly.’

Speaking to a parliamentary meeting on the fallout from Grenfell, Pat Hayes, managing director of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham’s development company Be First, said problems tend to emerge when buildings are altered. He cited a 1997 fire in Southall, which spread partly because of inadequate fire stopping installed when holes were drilled for cable TV ducting. He said: ‘We have to be very careful about the way we approach the adaption and modernisation of buildings which were in themselves quite robust and strong.’

Demolition should not become a knee-jerk solution, according to campaign group Architects for Social Housing, which points to the environmental costs of demolition compared with refurbishment. It recently produced a report on under-threat Central Hill Estate in south London, threatened with clearance by the London Borough of Lambeth. The report found that ‘the emissions associated with the demolition of Central Hill Estate… equate to the annual emissions of over 4,000 Lambeth residents’.

Concerns about the fact that Grenfell residents only had a single staircase to use as a means of escape are not, in themselves, an argument in favour of demolition, according to Krikler. ‘Most new-build tower blocks also only have a single core with a single means of escape,’ she says. ‘The London Design Guide says there should not be more than eight apartments per floor for a single core building. When looking outside of London, we can have many more units per floor but in that instance we have to be careful about escape routes.’

Grenfell has only bolstered a feeling that regeneration is being imposed on communities against their wishes

In any case, focusing on one single aspect of fire safety, such as stairs or sprinklers, in any tower block project – whether it is new build or refurbishment – does not address the complexity of creating a safe fire safety system, she says. ‘You need to look at the sprinklers, escape routes, compartmentalisation, the fire ratings of doors, whether there is a lobby in the flat itself.’ How the individual elements work together as a system is the only way of assessing fire safety, she says.

Architects also have a lot of thinking to do about how they respond to one of the most shocking issues highlighted by Grenfell – the disconnect between authorities regenerating estates and their residents. Grenfell Residents Group’s blog seems to show a chilling disregard for the worries about fire safety raised by those living in the block. Grenfell has only bolstered a feeling in some quarters that regeneration is being imposed on communities against their wishes.

Funding for the government’s £140 million Estate Regeneration Fund – announced late last year – requires consultation with communities. Such initiatives are nothing new. But how do architects ensure consultation is a meaningful, rather than tick-box process? Hana Loftus, director of HAT Projects, is working on behalf of the London Borough of Barnet on a co-design project to involve residents in redesigning their estate. ‘People in our sector need to make it easier for people to be heard,’ she says. ‘Yesterday I went to meet one resident at his office at 3pm. You can’t just announce a meeting and then say “nobody turned up, they are not interested”. You have to be more dedicated.’

Architects are in an ideal position to carry out the sensitive and challenging task of consultation, according to Dinah Bornat, director at ZCD Architects. ‘We are educated to bring together broader cultural and socio-economic factors that make up society and work out a technical solution that creates places for people to live,’ she says. But architects’ ability to influence and mediate with the community is often impossible if they are removed after planning has been granted. ‘We push to be involved in delivering the final product so that we can manage through our specification requirements,’ says Rieck. 

Even when architects are given a central role in consultation, it is often a fraught and complicated task involving both listening to residents but also educating them on what is achievable, according to Bornat. ‘You have to make sure you are not just listening to the people with the loudest voices who stand up and shout the most,’ she says. ‘To have meaningful conversations takes a serious amount of time and effort.’ Techniques to observe how residents currently use their living space can go alongside and enrich these conversations, she says.

Grenfell is already creating extra work for architects, who are keen to do everything they can to confirm the safety of the buildings they have designed. Whatever the length of the slowdown in development that results from the tragedy, the disaster opens an opportunity to adjust the industry’s approach to high rise development. It can only be hoped that architects can play a leading role in reducing the adversarial culture between residents and landlords that too often permeates estate regeneration projects.

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