The proceedings of the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster are compelling and shocking in equal measure, says Emma Dent Coad
I was elected as the first Labour MP for Kensington, after three recounts, on 9 June 2017. Four days later I woke to the sound of helicopters, put on the radio, leapt out of bed, dressed in seconds, and ran down the road to a scene of unspeakable horror that changed all our lives forever.
Watching the second phase of the public inquiry unfold over recent days and the evidence given by Studio E, the architect of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, has made me reflect on the changing role of the architect and what I’ve observed as an architectural historian with nearly 14 years of experience as a local councillor at Kensington and Chelsea.
One of the most revealing aspects of sitting on a planning committee, when you have some actual knowledge about how buildings work, is seeing how architects present themselves.
I’ve sat on dozens of committees where the architects – some of whom I’ve known personally – have pitched their projects to a group of local politicians. They often pitch it very badly indeed. We aren’t their client. We don’t want to be dazzled by their brilliance. We are representatives of their end-users, measuring their proposals against a set of finely defined policies, some of which we have had input into over years.
The bare arrogance of some practice leads is breathtaking. I asked one whether angels with sky-hooks were going to remove demolition spoil from an enclosed site with very narrow access, as that would genuinely have been the only way to demolish, clear and then deliver construction materials. Point made, the application was refused.
Much of the decision-making for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment was done behind closed doors
After the broad principles had been agreed, much of the decision-making for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment was done behind closed doors by delegated decision. This is a hateful process which is properly used to agree minor technical details, but is often also mobilised to cover up ominous decisions that would far better be seen in the light of day. It is on record that the finer details of cladding specification were carried out by officers by delegated decision.
Residents of Grenfell Tower had complained for years about the appalling state of repair of their homes, so, when it was decided in principle in 2012 to refurbish – so as not to shame the controversially located shiny new school that had been built on its amenity space – residents were initially pleased. This changed dramatically as the project unfolded.
Overcladding a concrete frame building raised my hackles as a MoMo purist, but I was too far detached from any decision-making to be heard on what would be considered an irrelevance. I’d already had too many arguments about the restoration of Trellick Tower, whereby I knew the team who had restored or replaced hardwood windows at the Barbican, and they had quoted one-third of the price that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) had been quoted for particle-foil wood, which to my mind looks like uPVC and is a poor replacement for the Goldfinger original.
I had misgivings when I heard that the project was going to proceed under Design and Build
My finer sensibilities set aside, I had further misgivings when I heard that the project was going to proceed under Design and Build. To my mind D&B is an invidious method of so-called ‘value engineering’ – a term I never want to hear used again – which inevitably results in a poor imitation of the original architects’ scheme. The council had ‘previous form’ with D&B contracts, one of which had been so poorly constructed that the building had to be vacated for three months to remedy numerous problems.
The problems often start with very poor contracting and procurement. If the contract isn’t sufficiently detailed and its ambitions focus on ‘getting the job done’ via the repellent D&B value engineering path, confusion reigns and matters can only go downhill.
I took part in a two-year Scrutiny Working Group on procurement at the council from 2015 to 2017, reviewing a range of contracts, from IT to the insanely over-indulgent Holland Park Academy building, known as ‘the most expensive secondary school in the Western hemisphere’. The report was so damning that the council refused to publish it, insisting ‘lessons had been learnt’. On one contract alone, £10 million was lost.
Council officers are often expected to work outside their expertise, on contracts and procurement worth possibly tens of millions and, as this is contracted and subcontracted, quality and care are whittled away, along with the accountability we cannot afford to lose sight of.
Contrast this with the dedication and professionalism of my buddies in Docomomo UK, many of whom worked in the 1950s and ’60s for the LCC on that burst of inspiration and ingenuity that produced our post-war housing estates, civic centres and local facilities. They worked on their projects from early ideas through to the specification of every switch and handle, and signed off the finished project for which they had legal responsibility.
The government seems to believe that architects draw pictures and techie people do the rest
Many of them are devastated at what has happened at Grenfell, and can’t understand how the link between architect and completed building has become so disjointed. Unfortunately, this also feeds into the narrative of the wider world, and particularly in parliament: the government seems to believe that architects draw pictures and techie people do the rest.
Given the lack of expertise, commitment and, well, care in government, I’m pleased that the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the RIBA, and numerous allied professions are working together via the International Standard Setting Committee to set standards on construction, building and fire safety.
And I’m pleased that architects are once again talking about social value, sounding ever more like my Docomomo buddies who worked for the LCC, and numerous others coming forward to pledge their commitment to tackle climate change while they tackle Hackitt-plus.
The intensity of questioning by the public inquiry QC this week is revealing jaw-dropping examples of buck-passing and poor practice. Whether the witnesses are visibly distressed, or defiantly defensive, it is compelling and shocking in equal measure.
Sitting at the front of the inquiry close to the witness stand, my heartbroken neighbours can hardly believe what they’re hearing. They want justice, they don’t want to see Grenfell 2 and, while government fiddles and prevaricates, it seems it’ll be left to the professions to lead the way.
Emma Dent Coad is a Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea councillor and former Kensington MP