Architects are best placed to prevent the dangerous discrepancies between architectural drawings and what ends up being built, writes PRP’s Andrew Mellor
The title of a chapter in broadcaster Robert Peston’s recently published book, WTF, says it all: ‘Grenfell changes everything’. Peston’s contention is that the Grenfell tragedy represented a fundamental breakdown of the social contract; that the protections guaranteed by the state in return for citizens’ adherence to the rule of law had been disregarded in the most horrific way possible.
It is difficult to argue with that analysis. However, the idea that Grenfell changes everything is as applicable to architecture and development as it is to political theory. Quite simply, the fire at the Grenfell Tower on 14 June last year revealed severe shortcomings in our industry. It is incumbent on all who work in the built environment to analyse how we work and make fundamental changes to better protect the occupiers of the buildings we create.
PRP has worked on the refurbishment of several high-rise housing estates, including Bow Cross in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where three tower blocks were over-clad with insulated render.
We have reviewed 20 buildings to see if their construction corresponds to architectural record drawings. We have ceased to be shocked by the discrepancies and defects
In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, the practice established a senior working group, which has met on a regular basis ever since to discuss how we as a firm are responding to the tragedy and how we can better advise our clients, be they councils, housing associations or private sector developers. The meetings have focused on sharing knowledge, understanding emerging guidance, clarifying conflict in guidance and providing practical expert advice, rather than being mere talking shops.
We have also reviewed more than 20 buildings in London alone on behalf of their owners, checking that their construction corresponds to the architectural record drawings for the project as well as meet the regulations. We have ceased to be shocked by the discrepancies and defects, often dangerous, that we are uncovering and we have yet to inspect a building that is fully (or even close to being) compliant. To be clear, the issues we are encountering are not limited to ACM panels or other forms of cladding. The number of built developments where cavity barriers are simply missing, for instance, is numerous.
In addition, we decided to review our processes and to check that appropriate materials were being specified on all of our design projects given the Ministry for Housing’s current definition of the regulations relating to façades, and more recently in relation to its proposals to ban combustible main façade materials.
It is time for architects to reassume much of the responsibility that has been gradually eroded in recent decades
We took a step back and reviewed the services we provide to ensure they remain relevant in post-Grenfell. It was an enlightening exercise. For instance, we identified that there was a need to boost the capacity of our development consultancy to respond to the increased demand from landlords and developers for expert advice in relation to reviewing the compliance of the façades on their existing buildings and future-proofing forthcoming projects with respect to the fire safety of proposed façades.
So where do we go from here? We believe it is time for architects to reassume much of the responsibility that has been gradually eroded in recent decades. The Hackitt Review offers this potential. It will involve practical, upstream steps such as providing detail on drawings so that there is less potential for variance, be it intended or unintended, when it comes to construction.
But more fundamentally, it should also involve architects taking contractual responsibility for projects throughout the build programme and right up until handover to the client. We are not yet in a position to say for certain exactly what went wrong at Grenfell, but it is already clear that sometime in the recent evolution of our industry quality checking and accountability has been eroded from our services.
We believe that architects are best placed to ensure that the buildings we design correspond to the buildings that are ultimately constructed. Nobody doubts that cost efficiencies can often be delivered safely, but our experience post-Grenfell is that all too often that has not been the case. Remedying the situation is a fundamental part of fixing the broken social contract.
Andrew Mellor is a partner at PRP