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Where does responsibility for buildings lie today?

Paul Finch

Let’s hope the Grenfell Tower inquiry nails the question of who should be relied on for ensuring that what has been designed is what is delivered, says Paul Finch

A series of apparently unconnected phenomena has been in the news in addition to the ramifications of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. On examination they have aspects in common which pertain to that inquiry, and which make it so important that it is conducted in a forensic fashion by a zealot for clarity. A former commercial judge sounds like an excellent choice.

What the judge will be ascertaining, among other things, is exactly who is responsible for design, construction, inspection and approval of buildings in respect of fire regulations; and the same in respect of materials testing. Who says that it is ‘safe’ to use certain materials in certain ways? Can a design where every element satisfies regulation nevertheless be a technical failure? What is the relationship between design, construction and management?



Responsibility for buildings was once simpler than it is today. Architects had a quasi-judicial role in respect of contracts, holding the ground between client and builder. As for building sites, the role of the clerk of works (remember them?) made crystal clear where responsibility lay; architects were able to supervise in tandem with the CoW, then, under pressures of various sorts, architects ‘inspected’ instead of supervised. These days the designer probably needs permission to go onto site, especially with design-and-build contracts.

Let’s hope the judge nails the question of who should be relied on, with legal consequences in the event of failure, for ensuring that what has been designed is what is delivered, and that the whole conforms not just to the letter, but to the spirit, of regulations.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry takes place in the context of surreal circumstances in the worlds of sport and academia which have prompted questions about the integrity of organisations. What is one to make of a twice-banned drug cheat being allowed to take part in the World Championships in Athletics? Some say it is impossible to prevent, to which the only response is that if you begin with that sort of attitude, impossible it will be. The shocking decline of personal integrity in the governing world bodies of football, athletics and cycling has largely arisen because of corruption at a personal level which infects the body as a whole.

The shocking decline of personal integrity in governing world bodies has largely arisen because of corruption at a personal level

However, even the highest-minded institutions are far from immune to the joys of unearned wealth. Consider grade degradation at our universities. Once the province of the American system of ‘all must have prizes’, privatised UK universities operating in a free market of academic qualification have noticed that if you make it easier to get first-class degrees, you will find it easier to market your courses and your institution to students, especially those from overseas who pay higher fees, and are therefore more desirable than the home-grown product. Hence the relentless rise in the number of firsts being awarded.

It mirrors what happened long ago in secondary schools. Why not make it easier for the poor dears? Not only will pupils and parents like all those ‘A’s, but it will make the teachers feel good about themselves, and that, in a culture of compulsory empathy, is really, really important. The teaching is better and the students are brighter. Hurrah!

There is a simple way of avoiding grade degradation, which is to give As or Firsts to the top 10 per cent of examinees, and other grades to fixed percentages in similar manner. If you do that, you can make the tests tougher, not simpler, without harming anyone. But you do preserve the integrity of the whole system.

As for drug cheats, the only answer is to ban them, as the general barring of Russian athletes has proved. The sport rediscovered its belief that integrity matters on track and field. The same should apply to the building site.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Defining the responsibilities of the architect is surely all the more difficult in an age when the work on a large project is quite likely to be split between a 'concept architect' and an 'executive architect' / 'architect of record'.

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  • Absolutely. One hope that one outcome of the Grenfell Tower inquiry will be suggestions about how to restore clarity about specific responsibility in law, and what sanctions should be applied, both civil and criminal, in the event of responsibilities being evaded.

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