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What can architects do to stop another Grenfell?

Nigel Ostime
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The Grenfell Tower tragedy has eroded consumer confidence in housing, but architects can play a part in changing this according to a new Housing Forum report, writes Nigel Ostime

The Housing Forum has published Stopping Building Failures, a post-Grenfell report intended to sit alongside Judith Hackitt’s review of the Building Regulations. The report sets out 14 practical recommendations to improve quality in housing, both for new build and maintenance of existing stock. The recommendations run from project inception and briefing through to practical completion and are set out under three broadly chronological headings: ‘Procuring for Quality’; ‘Harnessing Innovation’ and ‘Building Defect-free Homes’.

The third part covers matters such as site supervision and quality assurance. This is important as research by warranty provider BLP identified that 90 per cent of defects are attributed to poor workmanship, though professions must also shoulder some of the blame. Design that is unbuildable and drawings that operatives find difficult to interpret have also been cited as the cause of things going wrong on site, not least by clients featured in the report. There is a role for architects in this area if they want it, but the profession has typically distanced itself from the risky, sharp end of the business.

If costs are underestimated at the start, then the pressure is on to claw money back throughout the project

The first two parts of the report explain how architects can effect change from the comfort of their studios, and in fact these are probably the areas they have the ability to make the biggest difference anyway.

Under ‘Procuring for Quality’, the report lobbies for more time and effort to be spent at the front end in developing and understanding the brief, and in particular what represents value to the client – and then sticking to it and preserving it. The term ‘golden thread’ has been used in both this report and in Hackitt’s. Architects would use the term ‘vision’.

We saw from the 2016 RIBA client satisfaction survey that clients see value in the architect’s vision but that it must be delivered, not watered down. To achieve this, the vision must be attainable and deliver value. The Housing Forum report gives practical advice on this matter and recommends the project team holds a value management workshop to inform the project brief and agree the desired outcomes. This must include cost. If costs are underestimated at the start, then the pressure is on to claw money back throughout the project.

Designers are often pressurised into starting the design process without a full analysis of the desired outcomes and this invariably leads to variations and cost-cutting, both as the design develops and on site. The message has to be about giving more weight to value than price.

The second part of the report ‘Harnessing Innovation’ considers the low levels of productivity in construction and how the only way to improve them is through adopting modern methods of construction (MMC) and digital technology. Poor productivity has a clear impact on quality as lack of profit deters investment and continuous improvement.

1207 n2 medium

1207 n2 medium

Hawkins\Brown’s Tottenham Court Road oversite development adopted a DfMA (design for manufacture and assembly) approach

Design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) can only be implemented when considered at the concept design stage; it is generally too late by the technical design stage. The earlier these considerations come, the more scope for improvement there is.

But we can’t get supplier input with one stage Design and Build (D&B), so alternative forms of procurement, such as alliancing and integrated project insurance, are a core recommendation of the report.

Closely allied to MMC is the use of digital technology and BIM. One concern clients have with MMC is that it will potentially limit them to a single source of supply at an early stage in the project process. This is understandable as things stand, and the industry needs to develop better interoperability between systems to meet commercial drivers. A starting point for this in the residential sector is the development of a set of standardised flat types, in a BIM environment, which have DfMA principles built in from the outset and that have built-in ‘tolerance’ to accommodate different offsite forms of assembly. This is an approach that will bring enormous gains and one that architects can lead.

Nigel Ostime is delivery director at Hawkins\Brown and co-chair of the Housing Forum’s working group for Stopping Building Failures

Stopping Building Failures is available to download free here.

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