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Grenfell inquiry appoints engineer to consider role of design in tragedy

  • 4 Comments

Civil engineer David Nethercot has been chosen to advise on Grenfell Tower’s design, construction and refurbishment

In an update published by the independent inquiry, Nethercot, who is emeritus professor of civil engineering at Imperial College, was selected as one of three ‘assessors’ advising chair Martin Moore-Bick.

The other two assessors are: Joyce Redfearn, previously chief executive at Wigan Council, who will examine best practice among local authorities regarding the services procured during the design and construction of residential buildings, and Joe Montogomery, CEO for Urban Land Institute’s Europe branch, who will look at issues relating to community engagement and management of social housing. 

Nethercot, who was formerly head of the civil and environment engineering department at the college, said: ‘I hope that my scientific background and technical objectivity will assist the inquiry team in its current task and play a part in reducing the possibility of such a tragedy ever occurring again in the future.’ The AJ has contacted Nethercot for further comment. 

Ian Ritchie of Ian Ritchie Architects praised the appointment of Nethercot, whom he has met, adding that he is ‘not too concerned’ that there are currently no assessors who are architects.

He said: ’[Nethercot] is a strategic, big-picture thinker – intelligent, rigorous and technically astute. He will provide a valuable broad perspective on engineering issues relevant to the inquiry.’

’I am sure an architect or façade engineer with specific expertise – for example, on the cladding of the type used at Grenfell – will be called as a witness, as will the architects that designed and/or specified the cladding for Grenfell.’

Ritchie said that architects’ ’skill of synthesis will probably be of less value at providing the guidance the chairman needs right now, than the precise mind and analytical capabilities of a very good engineer’.

However, others in the profession have expressed concern at the current lack of architects in the inquiry.

Farshid Moussavi of Farshid Moussavi Architecture said that the involvement of architects is critical to the inquiry progressing. 

’We must learn lessons from what happened, and one lesson is that when refurbishing housing or value engineering it, the task must be approached in an interdisciplinary manner because many of the risks often exist at the intersection or in-between the different disciplines,’ she said.

’As design is where it is all brought together, it is crucial that architects be at the table and central to the inquiry process.’

Responding to the absence of architects in the inquiry team, a RIBA spokesperson said: ‘It is the chair’s decision which individuals should assist him with this inquiry.

’The RIBA is in regular contact with ministers, civil servants and advisors involved in the various strands of work related to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, making recommendations to enhance the future fire safety of buildings for all residents and users.’ 

The inquiry update also included information on the ’core participants’ – which will provide opening statements highlighting particular evidence or any aspects of the inquiry which affects them – stating that, out of 545 applications received for this role, 393 had been approved. In addition, 25 organisations and professional bodies have been granted core participant status. The RIBA has confirmed that it is not one of these 25 bodies. 

A spokesperson for the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry declined to give the AJ a list of the core participants, but added: ’We will be sharing some further information about core participants in due course and will keep you posted.’

John Assael of Assael Architecture said that, although he welcomes the three assessors with their ‘truly impressive’ credentials, it is ‘disappointing’ that there is not an architect assessor.

’The inquiry panel must invite expert architects who will have the technical expertise to help evaluate the disaster and help make recommendations to avoid future tragedies,’ he said.

‘Architects will also be able to provide insightful recommendations to address the flaws of the Design and Build procurement route so favoured by government, so that clients and users can be more confident that the delivery of buildings addresses the dangers of value engineering, compromised specifications, absence of independent supervision and sub-standard workmanship.’ 

Comment

Yasmin Shariff, director, Dennis Sharp Architects

It is no surprise that an architect is not on the inquiry panel as Britain’s social housing is being refurbished mainly through framework agreements and with little or no input from architects Many of the issues relating to the Grenfell fire are not complex – it is easy to understand the dangers of one staircase, the savings made on the overcladding and the poor workmanship.

The panel inquiry team have cvs that demonstrate detailed knowledge and expertise on these areas of concern. However, there is no single professional on the panel who has an overview of the financial, social, spatial and technical issues- ie the core experience and skill of an architect. The panel has the makings of the story of the blind man, mouse and the elephant- one end trumpeting out its long deliberation and the other end blasting us with noxious odours of self righteous inquiry having ticked the boxes and totally missed the point.

The panel does not know what it does not know and it clearly does not know what an architect does or what an architect can contribute. This inquiry is not set up to look at the comprehensive strategic failures of government/local government and governance- it is set up to look at each individual detail issue. It would be unthinkable of doing brain surgery without a brain surgeon in fact it would be criminal.

If the panel want to be taken seriously they need to include an architect with the core skills needed to tackle the structural failures of this terrible disaster. A recommendation to re establishing architects departments in local authorities would be an amazing and obvious outcome - rather like getting brain surgeons to do brainsurgery.

Faheem Aftab, architect, Manchester 

The continued lack of architectural involvement in the process is a surprising oversight … there is a clear need to explore and scrutinise the architectural design. It is fundamental to understand the process undertaken in the interpretation of the building regulations and the factors that influenced the specifications.

I have written to the DCLG and offered to help.

Alan Dunlop, architect and professor at the University of Liverpool

Professor Nethercote is a well respected structural engineer with exceptional credentials. However, that a similarly experienced architect is not included among those advising the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry is a damning indication of how little value is placed by chairman sir Martin Moore-Bick and government on their expertise.

It is also a further example of the general ignorance about the role of the architect and the marginalisation of the profession in society, particularly as one of the three set remits of the inquiry is to provide ‘assistance and advice on any other matter relevant to the Inquiry within their area of expertise’.

It is the architect, in conjunction with an experienced fire engineer, who usually specifies and details the building envelop and exterior cladding, including the specification of insulation and fire stops. Architects are also at the coal face of working within restrictive current public/private procurement models, low fee tendering and building construction, and consequently, would be much better able to advise on the process that could lead to such a tragedy. That the RIBA should accept the chair’s decision without apparently raising significant objections and point instead to an RIBA web link is bizarre. 

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • Geoff Williams

    I do hope that this will involve the issue of the electrical system in high rise structures and the appropriate rules of engagement including BS fire standards and codes. Current practices favour the minimum standards like BS6387. The matter of cabling is crucial since it is taken the width and breadth of a building. Cables must be chosen that provides no smoke or toxic fumes, when burning, and offers a 2 hour fire rated capability. Essential life saving applications should feature a metal sheath cabling system. It is a question of "Raising Standards - Saving Lives".

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  • Geoff Williams

    The BSI Statement.
    BSI Statement.
    “BS6387 does not attempt to provide any guidance as to the suitability of cables to any given installation, or purpose. The choice of a particular cable to given installation and purpose must take into account all relevant building, electrical installation and fire regulations and codes pertaining to the building concerned, also taking into account the survival time required for the particular circuits the cable will serve. Such a choice must be made by suitably qualified persons having the requisite expertise to make those decisions and is a far wider issue than the use of just one standard”.

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  • I hope that the inquiry will take into account the quality of information provided by manufacturers to decision-makers. Much technical literature uses trade names and jargon and is unacceptably vague and unclear about what materials are used. It is time that manufacturers spell out exactly what their products comprise. If it is made from polyurethane or polystyrene or polyester or polyethylene, the trade literature must say this unambiguously. The defence of 'it's commercially sensitive' can no longer be acceptable in the face of so many deaths.

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  • Better to wait and see how the inquiry proceeds?

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