Three months on from the horrifying fire at Grenfell Tower, the consequences of the blaze are still emerging. The public inquiry into the fire, along with a call for a review of building and fire regulations, has put the design, construction and management of high-rise buildings firmly under scrutiny.
It is now three months since the horrifying fire at Grenfell Tower, in which at least 80 people died. The consequences of the blaze, however, are still emerging: most tragically for those families affected, but also for the construction industry, in the fight to ensure that such a disaster can never happen again.
The start of the public inquiry into the fire last week, together with a call for evidence into a parallel review of building and fire regulations being led by Dame Judith Hackitt, has put the design, construction and management of high-rise buildings firmly under scrutiny.
While the public inquiry is focused on Grenfell itself, its chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has made clear his intention to investigate the regulations and industry practice that formed the backdrop to the 1970s’ tower’s refurbishment.
With 266 tall buildings built using cladding systems tested since Grenfell apparently suffering problems with their response to fire, there are strong suggestions of a systemic failure; and the examination of this could have far-reaching consequences for the sector. Meanwhile, Hackitt’s detailed analysis of building and fire regulations will clearly have a direct bearing on the design and construction of future projects.
Such scrutiny is, tragically, long overdue. The coroner into the Lakanal House fire, which killed six people in Camberwell, London, in 2009, found that the fire safety regulations guidance was “a most difficult document to use” and should be reviewed to “ensure it provides clear guidance”; her view has been cited repeatedly since Grenfell. So now that the fire safety of tall buildings is firmly in the spotlight, what needs to come from these inquiries to ensure that such an event does not happen again?
The first and most pressing issue is to understand how the cladding used on Grenfell, and the 266 other towers built using systems that have now failed government tests, was approved. The companies involved in Grenfell maintain that the necessary building control approvals were received for the work, even though several experts have since taken the view that the refurbishment would have breached building regulations.
There has been much made since the fire of the confusing wording of Approved Document B, the part of the regulations covering fire safety in buildings; at the very least, the document needs clarifying.
But the testing regime for compliance with building regulations also needs to be reviewed and potentially reformed, particularly in relation to desktop studies, which attempt to model the performance of a system based on existing large-scale tests that contain some of the system’s elements.
As well as establishing an acceptable testing regime, the reviews need to ensure that there is an adequately resourced pool of building control inspectors able to sign off work, and safeguard the quality of assessments amid concerns over the effectiveness of private sector-licensed “approved inspectors”.
The reviews also need to establish a clear position on the installation of sprinklers in high-rises. London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton has called for a programme to retrofit sprinklers in tall buildings, on the basis that even when the fire is on the outside of the building, they help buy time for people to escape. For such a programme to be justifiably resisted by the government, the reviews would need to provide clear evidence that sprinklers would not help in fires such as Grenfell.
These are all complex issues, and one of the challenges for the inquiries will be to ensure that they reach their conclusions swiftly enough to prevent mistakes needlessly being made on projects that are now in local authority pipelines.
But one concern with the current regime that surely would be simple to address is the fact it has taken a tragedy like Grenfell to trigger a review of regulations which were being decried as inadequate as long as eight years ago, and even before that.
In Australia, fire regulations are reviewed as a matter of course every two years; surely it would make sense for the UK also to adopt a fixed timeframe for review?
There is already widespread concern in the sector that regulations have not kept pace with the changing use of cladding and insulation in the industry, with new systems being designed to meet changing energy efficiency stipulations.
With the industry increasingly being pushed by government to innovate, particularly around modular systems, it would seem a huge mistake not to ensure that fire regulations are regularly reviewed. This would both ensure that new systems comply as intended, and also that the regulations take account of advances in technology and understanding of the fire performance of different materials.
As it stands, many of those living in high-rise local authority housing are being put needlessly at risk and left to fear for their lives.
Sarah Richardson, editor