Manchester-based architect Faheem Aftab discusses how much responsibility can be laid at architects’ doors, how the profession should react and the powers that already exist to stop further disasters
I watched the fire at Grenfell Tower in horror and disbelief. My mother used to leave me with my babysitter, who lived on the building’s 22nd floor. As I witness the public outcry I ask myself and the profession: could we have done more to have prevented this from happening?
The law, the process, the design responsibility and the analysis of risk all fall within our duty of care. As architects we should be part of the search for answers and help provide the reassurance this kind of tragedy will never happen again.
We should ask whether a public inquiry is the only choice the government has. Rather than just questioning the government’s reaction, we should help the task force, by leading the call for the communities secretary to use current legislation to immediate effect.
The RIBA clearly has a role to play. If ever there was a time to prove its purpose ‘to serve members and society in order to deliver better buildings and places, stronger communities and a sustainable environment’ that time is now.
Meanwhile I suggest the first port of call must be the law and regulations. The existing building codes and associated design, installation and product performance standards are based on the fire protection requirements set for the risk.
Traditionally, there have been two types of safety requirements relevant to fire suppression products: life safety; and property protection. There are also fire standards, measures and requirements for manufacturers to supply data on products.
It is widely considered that the UK Building Regulations can only be enforced when a construction activity is taking place or if there is an obvious breach.
It is also commonly thought that these laws are created retrospectively, and that the legislation is formed after an event to stop it happening again.
While much of the legislation we have has been created in this way – and seemingly the government’s response has been driven by this understanding – there is an opportunity to act immediately to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.
The Building Act of 1984 Part 1 already gives the power to the secretary of state to require building owners to meet regulations irrespective of when a building was built, and makes provision to proscribe materials or components unsuitable for use. Both actions would appear to be appropriate and effective, thus making it possible for the enforcement of newer sprinkler rules to be applied to all 4,000 similar towers and enable the banning of flammable cladding material.
We need to take measures to address the use of materials in new buildings and this requires greater investment into research and development.
The NBS research study into the Building Regulations recommends that the guidance should be more straightforward.
‘The building regulations are becoming far too complex and scientific. They should be straight to the point so that everyone from the designer to the builder and the end user can understand them and implement them.’
NBS Research study into the usability of Building Regulations Approved Documents B (Fire safety) and M (Access to and use of buildings) - Department for Communities and Local Government - February 2017
As architects we should also be demanding that documents relating to safety are made freely available and at no cost.
There is already a call for a ban on combustible materials from fire safety experts, and they question why contractors are making the choice to use flammable materials and how these changes to specification can happen. Should we do more to stop this from happening, or – more importantly – why do we not have the authority to stop it from happening? As the lead designer, how can we not?
Are the savings justifiable when lives are at stake and safety is jeopardised?
Other things have contributed to this disaster too: the demise of local authority control and the subsequent problems that lack of impartiality creates; the move away from regulation and to self-evaluation, which inhibits local authority powers to question or take actions; the fear of litigation that prevents people standing up and pointing out mistakes.
Has the profession been complacent and complicit? As the debate and anger continues, will we as architects stand up and do the right thing?
Faheem Aftab grew up on a housing estate in London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. He has worked on a number of high rise refurbishments and advised housing associations on refurbishments