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At What Cost?

Grenfell Tower fire 2017 photo Natalie Oxford7

Grenfell Tower fire 2017 photo Natalie Oxford

In her response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry terms of reference the RIBA President Jane Duncan was right to draw attention the Institute’s disappointment ‘that the terms of the Inquiry do not explicitly mention the overall regulatory and procurement context for the construction of buildings in the UK. We consider this examination crucial to understanding the often complicated division of design responsibilities and the limited level of independent oversight of construction’.

I think the inquiry will highlight the inadequacy of the minimum standards of the current Building Regulations with regards to external cladding but it remains to be seen whether what was actually installed was even in accordance with them or in accordance with what was designed and specified.

By ‘independent oversight’ Ms Duncan means the appointment of an architect to administer the contract and make regular site visits to see that the materials and workmanship are in accordance with it. So much work nowadays is procured using the currently fashionable ‘design and build’ approach with no independent architectural input when the work is on site. This contrasts with the traditional approach where the contract is administered by the architect who acts as ‘impartial arbiter’ (independent of the client and the contractor).

‘Design and build’ may save some fees but at what cost if the work is incorrectly constructed? How do we know until it is too late if defective work is covered up – as it was in the case of the 17 schools that had to be closed in Edinburgh last year when the inexplicable absence of external cavity wall ties and internal masonry wall head ties was discovered after a wall fell down.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry must make sure that it sheds light on the full context for the decisions that led up to the tragedy.

Iain Miller