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Grenfell: RIBA presidency candidates discuss how the profession should respond

Collage riba presidents 2018
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Ella Jessel asked the three candidates for the RIBA presidency how they thought the institute and the profession should respond to the Grenfell Tower disaster

Philip D Allsopp

Bw philip david allsopp credit  glen mire, mire images, llc

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is an example of what can happen when architects – the professionals most qualified, experienced and able to conduct proper oversight and stewardship over the re-use and refurbishment of existing structures – are sidelined or marginalised. 

The recent call by the daughter of one of the survivors for architects to fight hard for their inclusion and involvement could not be clearer. This plea mirrors the long-standing concerns and energy now being applied with increasing intensity by architects around the world and by the RIBA itself. The RIBA and the profession at large know we can no longer be bystanders to the consequences of architects’ reduced role in society; a role that bears no relationship at all to the scope of expertise, services and sustained value we are able to deliver. 

The recent call by the daughter of one of the survivors for architects to fight hard for their inclusion and involvement could not be clearer

To reverse this, we must confidently engage with those occupying the corridors of economic and political power where actions and policies exert a significant influence on lives, wellbeing, community resilience and the physical environments that people inhabit. This engagement may not be within every architect’s comfort zone but we must nevertheless do this to reshape current perceptions of our profession and the pivotal role we can already play in policy endeavours, in economic decisions, and in support of a just and inclusive society. 

To facilitate these changes, the RIBA should accelerate its global support of those practices that are pushing the envelope in business, planning, financing, and enabling technologies, such as integrated computational ecosystems comprising GIS, BIM, algorithmic design technologies and also advanced manufacturing and supply chain integration. These technological foundations will enable the re-emergence of a highly engaged profession, fluent not only with the tools and technologies of design and construction, but in the language of policy, finance, real estate, community development and wellbeing.

Imagine how more effective and more supportive of human needs our built environments would be when nourishing the human spirit and enabling communities to thrive are core metrics of policy success? We have an ethical duty to achieve this because the wellbeing of billions of lives depends on what architects do. 

Elsie Owusu

Bw elsie owusu credit nana humphrey barclay

Grenfell United, the community’s champion, looks much like London: in the diversity of its people, the wonderful vibrancy of its community and courage and tremendous solidarity in its response to this tragedy. Among the victims in the tower were women and men with family ties to 22 countries around the world, many who had come to Britain to seek refuge from violence and poverty.Grenfell Tower is near my home. I pass the 23-storey tower most Sundays as I drive my mother to church. Last Sunday, the sad sight of the charred building was transformed crowned with the green heart and the legend ‘Forever in our hearts’.

The 72 tragic victims included architects, artists and engineers. And architects are among those who will potentially face a criminal investigation. The survivors demand answers: about why and how a small fire ‘in or around’ a fridge-freezer in Behailu Kebede’s fourth-floor flat engulfed the entire building in a matter of minutes. 

London’s diverse architects must now be courageous. With the confidence of their vision, technical skills and training, they must listen to and empower the residents

Architecture is key to the Hackitt and Moore-Bick inquiries – from the original designs of the concrete tower, to the plans showing fire containment through the failed ‘stay put’ policies, to the cladding design – criticised by some residents as a cynical exercise in ‘beautification’ and cost-saving. And London’s diverse architects, reflecting Grenfell’s many cultures, must now be courageous. With the confidence of their vision, technical skills and training, they must listen to and empower the residents. 

Led by the Grenfell United residents’ group, architects can help the community to take charge of their own future – rebuilding, healing and re-creating a sustainable urban future in North Kensington. Khadijah Mamudu, the daughter of a Grenfell survivor, asked at the RIBA’s Fire Safety Conference last week: ‘Architects are involved at the beginning but then sign it over to someone else. If you built it, why aren’t you allowed to see it through to fruition?’ RIBA president Ben Derbyshire tweeted in response: ‘Quite right. We’re on it!’ 

Alan Jones

Alan jones

It was just over one year ago that we woke to the news of Grenfell Tower. To have such an event happen in a building that was refurbished so recently was astonishing. It was a wake-up call for everyone involved in the initiation, designing, constructing, approving and long-term maintenance of buildings.

We must not forget how 18 months earlier the collapse of a poorly constructed brickwork gable on an Edinburgh school could also have caused loss of life if it had fallen an hour later. The consequent report by procurement industry expert John Cole highlighted so many concerns connected to systematic problems in the quality of work provided by the construction industry. 

His recent Dumfries Leisure Centre report highlights the disconnect between consultants and the user and client, very often with the contractor in between. The RIBA’s and the profession’s response to Grenfell and to the Scottish schools needs to be firm, clear and evidenced. The RIBA must articulate to government and other major clients that architects are the only regulated profession in the construction industry. Furthermore, the RIBA and its members must ram home that procurement and contractual arrangements must change. Following Cole and Hackitt, procurement must change to allow well defined continuous roles, associated responsibility and a well-defined uninterrupted connection between client, user and the architects and associated consultants. 

The RIBA and its members must ram home that procurement and contractual arrangements must change

Architects must also be firm when being asked to sign off on lower-specification systems, components and materials. Small and medium-scale practices are well-placed to give local, continuous expert and independent service. 

The RIBA must gather and present the evidence of how increasing levels of turnover are being absorbed by non-delivery costs, higher professional indemnity insurance and by increasingly wasteful procurement processes.

Keeping the process fair, reasonable and still competitive would allow architects to plough more fees back into the service given to each project, paying each other better, engage with meaningful Continuing Professional Development and retain staff and their expertise within the industry. 

And this is just for starters. Enhanced professionalism, a Hippocratic oath, more specific education and CPD, and specialist register of fire design architects are worth consideration, too.

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