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Dent Coad: The Grenfell inquiry is revealing jaw-dropping examples of poor practice

Emma dent coad cu
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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

  • 6 Comments

Readers' comments (6)

  • John Kellett

    An excellent piece squarely placing the blame on the ‘closed door’ D&B value engineering. As architects we need to return to our role in the procurement of buildings. Those that have taken on the role through glossy brochures, blame shifting and ‘people skills’ rather than talent or skill or knowledge are revealing themselves as incompetent.

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  • Industry Professional

    I find it hard to criticise very much of this written piece. Poor decisions were made by various parties. 72 people paid the ultimate price as a result as well as many other people being harmed in some way.
    Value engineering should mean finding ways to do things more efficiently but too often ends up as simple cost-cutting.
    Design and build should mean making it easier or finding a more appropriate way to build and thus make a project potentially cheaper. However, it too often just means finding ways to make something cheaper, regardless of other factors.
    It is going to be interesting to hear what the contractors involved have to say when they are questioned.
    Jeffrey - a civil engineer - comment made via IHS

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  • Agree with the article and the comment above. It has been gripping and horrifying by turns to read the AJ series. It is required reading for our entire staff.
    What we call Design/Build in America is one of the most complete scams ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. In a clever sleight-of-hand the architect no longer works for the client, instead working for the contractor who, over here at least, is not restrained against conflict of interest as is the architect.
    It appears that the UK and Europe have also bought in to the technical architect/design architect fallacy where the designer hands over responsibility for "making it work" to the technical expert.
    Small wonder that, when things go wrong, the finger pointing round robin begins, no one has a single point responsibility for the project. In our practice the architect who stamps the drawing has final responsibility for everything on the drawing and the obligation to know and understand what is in the drawings.
    We do experience VE and decisions are taken out of our hands using the money excuse, but we still have full responsibility for the project and the option all architect's have of refusing to stamp the drawings if we do not agree with decisions forced upon us.

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  • Emma Dent Coad is writing a political rant, picking easy targets while advertising her own sense of self-importance and missing many of the difficult and uncomfortable truths of this desperately sad event.
    She rages against the usual suspects without proposing anything but the most naïve alternatives, while displaying a remarkably rose-tinted perspective of the past.
    ‘The bare arrogance of architect’s leads is breathtaking’, ‘D+B is invidious and inevitably results in a poor imitation of the original architect’s scheme’ , ‘Value Engineering is repellant: a term I never want to hear again’ ‘over-cladding raised my hackles as a MoMo purist’.
    She harks back to the past: ‘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.
    This mixture of nostalgia and cant is historic revisionism which requires an alternative narrative. The idea that the development projects of the post war decades (which included the MoMo generation) evolved appropriate and sustainable housing flies in the face of the evidence that most were inappropriate: socially, economically and architecturally, creating ghettos that future generations have struggled to address at vast cost to individual communities.
    Returning to the Grenfell enquiry: most architects I have spoken to recognise that any one of us could have been in the dock. This is not to trivialise the issues, but this has been a perfect storm and to simplify the conclusions into a few convenient sound bites is to ignore the complex nature of the process and the range of overlapping issues which contributed to the tragedy. The Enquiry may well decide to hang/castigate a few individuals to provide a public/media satisfaction, but that would ignore the complexity of every issue and the social, political and economic climate in which the Grenfell project evolved.
    ‘Design and Build’ as a procurement contract was devised as a method to use the skills of all those involved in the contracting process to achieve better and more efficient building projects. There are countless examples where this has been successful and to suggest that the ‘traditional contract’ offers an alternative panacea is ludicrous. Similarly, the idea that ‘Value Engineering’ is of itself a ‘bad thing’ is equally banal. The importance of achieving good value is an intrinsic part of any development process and to deny the part that the cost scrutiny of design decisions take is to deny a fundamental part of any architectural project.
    The Grenfell Enquiry reveals a depressing context: Building Regulations which were confusing and inadequate, and which should have been amended after the recommendations of the Enquiry into the Irvine Fire: the recommendations were largely ignored by the Government. This was compounded by manufacturers marketing products which were demonstrably unsuitable as being compliant with the Building Regulations to use in the cladding of buildings like Grenfell.
    A project as complex as Grenfell (which is most major building projects) demands an understanding and respect amongst the whole team (Client, design team, contractor, subcontractors, suppliers) of the role being taken by each team member and an honest and open-minded attitude to dealing with every issue, even at the risk of upsetting established patterns of working. An overlap of responsibilities is inevitable but there were clearly critical gaps in the responsibility taken for design, specification and construction of the cladding (and ultimately the architect’s seem to have been persuaded to sign a list of responsibilities - under pain of not being paid) that most PI insurers would surely advise against). As the Enquiry has evolved it is easy to pose the questions…but why:
    • didn’t you insist that the fire consultant endorse the cladding and insulation that was finally specified?
    • didn’t you point out that the cladding failed to meet the performance criteria in the original specification
    • didn’t you ask the cladding specialist to clarify the fire insulation properties of the cladding
    But it is easy to be wise after the event.
    Ultimately a project is only as good as the team (and the systems of communication) involved in its delivery, whatever the procurement route. Some of the relationships were not as effective as they should have been and the critical cross checking and scrutiny that is a necessary part of the evolving design process was defective. Roles were misunderstood and vital checks were not taken at the right time. In the circumstances the project was primed for the disaster, but a single villain will be hard to pin down.

    Charles Thomson

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  • Well said, Mr Thomson - and there's surely an awfully long way to go with this enquiry yet, and with all the follow-up that surely now can't be dodged.

    Not to be compared, hopefully, to the aftermath of the Lakanal House tragedy.

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  • Industry Professional

    To an outside of the profession such as me, it is clear that architecture is more political than some others, perhaps because it is about creating places and spaces for people.

    I believe I have previously said, in another comment of mine regarding the Inquiry, that the way too many building projects are set-up is too fragmented and the responsibilities too confused and unclear.

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing to have and I have some sympathy for those involved with Studio E, based on my own experience in the past of how certain parties have tried to persuade, manipulate and even bully others into compromising situations.
    However, today's AJ summary of Studio E's involvement is sobering.

    I believe that the best thing construction can do is REALLY and TRULY to learn from this disaster. Unfortunately, too often, history teaches us less than it should as lessons get forgotten. I have an old book on simple building faults and the author starts my noting how similar failures occur again and again. Unclean cavities in external walls is but one example. People fatally falling through fragile roofs is another.

    Jeffrey - a civil engineer - comment made via the IHS

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