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The RIBA’s role takes on fresh importance post-Grenfell

Paul Finch

In this time of crisis the RIBA’s actions demonstrate its value to the profession, says Paul Finch

I make no apologies for returning to the subject of the Grenfell Tower fire, given the immensity of the scandal now being revealed. As evidence mounts of the specification and/or purchase of exterior over-cladding products that were not fit for purpose, so the number of questions about who, what, where, when, how and why increase.

These questions can only be properly answered, assessed and put into a rational context courtesy of the public inquiry already ordered. Moreover, the parallel police investigation will (one hopes) pull no punches.

The RIBA is quite right to be reviewing this issue, and its advice to members is a model of concision in terrible circumstances. Like any professional institution, it can only reflect grimly on the criticism frequently made by politicians and members of the public that what it does is promote the interests of its members, rather than that of society. Issues can be coincident, especially where the safety of third-party users is concerned – the people with whom architects have an unwritten ethical and moral contract.

I talked about this to former RIBA president Paul Hyett last week, not least because he discussed fire on more than one occasion in his long-running series of weekly AJ practice columns. His analysis of what happened in the dreadful fire at Düsseldorf Airport in 1996 is a reminder, at a time of anger and accusations, that you have to take a step back and try to see a complete picture before jumping to conclusions about how to prevent recurrence.

His comment post-Grenfell runs as follows: a construction culture based on risk transfer represents entirely the wrong approach to guaranteeing public safety. Instead what is needed is surety that specification and design responsibility remains with:

  • Those who have the knowledge to competently discharge that responsibility; and
  • Those who have the professional integrity to apply it in truly independent fashion without fear or favour ever fettering their performance.

This chimes with the RIBA’s comment that: ‘Developments in building procurement approaches mean that the Lead Designer (architect or engineer) is no longer responsible for oversight of the design and the specification of materials and products from inception to completion of the project, with design responsibility often transferred to the contractor and subcontractors, and no single point of responsibility.’

Responsibility is the key word here; moreover it is not a question of how things work in theory under the current set of regulations and guidance, but how they work in practice. Produce a regulation and clever people will dream up something which conforms to the letter of regulation but not necessarily its spirit. That, of course, is what in theory distinguishes professionals from others: by virtue of their professional codes they have an obligation to the public as well as contractual obligations to their clients. That is one of the reasons why I believe architects should be members of the RIBA, which ultimately represents independence and knowledge. At times like these, that takes on fresh importance.

Meanwhile, there has been more scapegoating and more repellent media coverage quite at odds with the quiet dignity of most of the Grenfell survivors. A BBC Radio 4 broadcaster referenced, in unpleasant terms, Irvine Sellar (RIP) and the Shard, as though they were relevant to a fire in a 1970s council high-rise. Even the tenants’ action group has bafflingly decided that somehow the fire is all the fault of Mipim, the international property fair.

As for John McDonnell, instigator of the pathetic ‘day of rage’ that the public ignored, and who on Sunday claimed the blaze victims were ‘murdered by political decisions’, all one has to remember is that his views are so extreme that, when he began a process of bankrupting London in his role as finance chair of the old Greater London Council, he had to be sacked. The man who dismissed him, for being ‘too left-wing’? Ken Livingstone. Enough said.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Repellant media coverage? Will Self's musings on BBC R4 'A Point of View' ('After Grenfell') are worth listening to - yes, quoting the recently deceased Irvine Sellar made me think twice, but the content is entirely to the point - and very, very far away from the mad and frightening prejudices of the deceptively mild-mannered Mr McDonnell.
    I think that Mr Self's straight talking is very welcome, as it's hardly uninformed prejudice, and it's all too easy for architects to bask comfortably in a febrile world of well-funded flash superficiality - as increasingly on display in this country, particularly in London.
    And the news this morning is of 'multiple fire safety inspection failures' in the superficially smart looking Chalcot Estate tower blocks that are now being evacuated, with more than a thousand fire doors missing, faulty gas pipe installation, breaches of internal walls and inaccessible stairways.
    I think that we'll all be returning to the subject of the Grenfell Tower fire - surely no-one can sweep this under the carpet, however much they'd like to think it's all just a bad dream.

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  • Well if the record of what someone did in the 1980's is still relevant to today's politics? I guess it depends on who you know, as today we have failed minister Oliver Letwin, re-emerging as a 'policy guru' with a 'Sir' in front of his name to boot...as if his incompetence in the 1990's and racism of the 1980's doesn't matter at all. I wonder how offended Finch is by that? No doubt he'll tell us he's very offended. McDonnell's language is a bit strong for my liking, but he is absolutely right to link the culture of 'risk transfer' to a wider political culture of placing less value on the lives of the much less well-off, who seem to be attacked by society in multiple ways (as evidenced by the film I Daniel Blake, which Finch probably thinks is a fantasy), shoddy throw-away housing attitudes (if not policies and workmanship) just being the latest to emerge as a result of the deaths of 100 people. Personally, I find that more offensive than the supposed Marxist views of a firebrand politician.

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  • This sort of rambling explains why people are getting tired of social media.

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