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Weekend roundup: Studio E, so much to answer for

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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Grenfell architect gives evidence to inquiry • Events cancelled amid coronavirus fears • Sharks make surprise appearance in Antepavilion shortlist

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry resumed this week with representatives of Studio E Architects giving evidence – much of it of a fairly startling nature.

Inquiry lawyers have been building up a picture of a practice with no experience in high-rise residential work, who had only won the commission by gaming EU procurement rules, and whose initial designs were described by the fire consultant as ‘making an existing crap condition worse’.

With Studio E’s employees now indemnified from being prosecuted in relation to anything they said at the inquiry, first to take the witness stand was practice founding director Andrzej Kuszell.

He admitted that when Studio E won the job it had no experience in overcladding or refurbishing a high-rise block, nor on high-rise residential projects in general. He defended this by remarking that ‘There was a time when every project that we did was a new project’.

Nor it seemed did the practice seek to compensate for this lack of experience. Project lead Bruce Sounes told the inquiry he was largely unaware there was specific guidance in the Building Regulations for buildings taller than 18m and did not know that aluminium panels could melt. And he said he was only partially familiar with a section on external fire spread.

And despite the nature of the Grenfell refurbishment, he admitted knowing little about the 2009 fire at Lakanall House, a housing block in Southwark, where six people died, the fire spreading as a result of botched and unsafe renovation work.

Why then did the Grenfell Tower Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) appoint an architect so poorly qualified for the job?

One of the lawyers representing survivors and the bereaved had earlier suggested it had circumvented public procurement legislation by capping their fees below the thresholds which would have triggered a competitive procurement process.

The inquiry now heard how Studio E had deferred a portion of its fees so that the stages A-D would be under the £174,000 OJEU procurement threshold. The practice’s total fees for the job were revealed to be £323,000.

Sounes, however, argued that the spread of fee payments over the course of the job was ‘fairly typical’.

When the lawyer suggested to Kuszell that had there been a competitive procurement process for the work, it was unlikely Studio E would have won, he replied: ‘Knowing the way procurement works, I think you’re right.’

There were further revelations in an internal email sent by the project’s fire consultant Exova, which showed it had concerns about Studio E’s proposals.

‘They are making an existing crap condition worse,’ it read, ‘so it’s a matter of working the worse bits out and making the new stuff work. No sprinklers wanted.’

Studio E associate Neil Crawford, who took over on day-to-day running of the project, argued that the architect was not responsible for ensuring that designs of specialist subcontractors met Building Regulations. He said that, when it came to approving drawings, his job was limited to checking they matched ‘architectural intent’ rather than checking they were compliant with the regs.

But inquiry lawyer Richard Millett, pointed out that Studio E’s deed of appointment stated it was required to ‘seek to ensure that all designs comply with the relevant statutory requirements’.

Architectural events postponed as virus fears grow

Shutterstock venice biennale

Shutterstock venice biennale

Many warned of the isolationist future we might face in a post-Brexit world. Is the coronavirus now giving us a sneak preview of the full-on post-2020 experience?

Shortly after last week’s Weekend Roundup suggested that it was a bad idea to take the risk of proceeding with the MIPIM international property fair, its organisers announced they had come to a similar conclusion. Only a few days earlier they had insisted it would go ahead – but with hand gel available. Now the event, which should have been kicking off this coming Tuesday, has been postponed until early June.

A few days later the Venice Architecture Biennale, set to run from May to November, was similarly postponed. The biennale’s theme is How Will We Live Together? But the answer appears to be: by coming into as little contact with each other as possible – at least not until the end of August when it is now set to open.

All those keenly sought hotel rooms will now remain empty, though finding equivalents for the rearranged dates may be trickier, not being out of season as the original dates were.

Poll: How have you changed your working habits in light of the coronavirus outbreak?
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Last week’s poll asked: With Heathrow’s third runway ruled unlawful, what should be the future of UK airport growth? 56% favoured dropping all expansion plans, 19% wanted to expand a different airport; 14% felt the ‘Boris Island’ airport in the Thames Estuary should be revived; while 11% backed appealing the Heathrow decision.

Sharkitekts

Sharks crop

Sharks crop

The Architecture Foundation’s Antepavilion competition has taken a rather strange turn in this its fourth year, with a proposal involving sharks named as one of the five shortlisted entries.

The annual competition invites radical visions for structures on and around the Hoxton Docks complex on the Regent’s Canal. But announcing this year’s brief, it became apparent that competition backer Russell Gray, who owns the competition site, had a bit of an axe to grind with the local planning authority.

Hackney Council had ordered him to remove two of the previous pavilions, saying they were ‘incongruous’ with their surroundings. As well as appealing the order, Gray stipulated that those entering this year’s contest ‘respond to the tension between authoritarian governance of the built environment and aesthetic libertarianism’.

This call to arms has prompted architect Jaimie Shorten to take inspiration from one of the most celebrated planning controversies: the Headington Shark, which involved a 7.6m-long fibreglass shark, positioned as if nosediving into the roof of an Oxford house. The city council tried but failed to have it removed on the grounds of safety.

Shorten’s Antepavilon submission appears to comprise a crudely Photoshopped image of some sharks on the canal and an imaginative narrative, which says the sharks ‘will sing Charles Trenet’s La Mer, in harmony and in French, as a poignant reflection on the UK leaving the EU’.

Since no one seems to be questioning him, Shorten adds that ‘each of the six sharks will give a lecture on important themes in contemporary architecture and urbanism’.

It’s tempting to hope Shorten’s entry wins the contest just to see how he will realise his vision. His victory might also inspire me – no stranger, myself, to the crudely Photoshopped image – to have a crack at Antepavilion 5.

Also this week

Tunnel vision 
The proposed bridge linking Scotland and Northern Ireland could have an unexpectedly subterranean quality, Scottish secretary Alister Jack has suggested. Speaking in the Scottish Parliament, Jack said Boris Johnson’s proposal for a £15 billion bridge was a ‘euphemism’ for tunnel. While many had queried the suitability of a bridge across the Irish Sea when weather conditions can often be quite extreme, the underground approach would get round this and, Jack suggested, would also be less expensive.

Grafton duo win Pritzker 
The co-founders of Grafton Architects have won this year’s Pritzker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious architectural accolades. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who founded the Dublin practice in 1978, were praised for their ‘unceasing commitment to excellence’ and for being ‘pioneers’ in a male-dominated profession. Last month the pair officially received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, which was awarded to Grafton last year.

Green rules for RIBA awards 
The RIBA is to insist on strict green criteria for its architectural awards. According to HOK director Gary Clark, who heads the institute’s green policy group, buildings would have to meet tough carbon emissions targets before they could be considered for an award. The RIBA has already said it will consider the climate emergency when judging this year’s entries and Clark suggested that the new rules would kick in in ‘a couple of years’.

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