Looking back on 2017, perhaps the kindest thing we can say about it was that it was underwhelming

Looking back on 2017, perhaps the kindest thing we can say about it was that it was underwhelming. The initial optimism of the year’s beginning petered out and, in terms of construction output at least, it turned out that January was actually a high point. 

While the last 12 months were not without cheer – infrastructure projects getting off the ground and a serious focus on housing – the news was dominated by the disaster at Grenfell Tower, an incident that will have very long-lasting implications for construction. The inquiries into the Grenfell tragedy that were set in train this year will continue to run their course throughout 2018, and construction, manufacturing, design and regulations will come under the microscope for all the wrong reasons. The judicial process will play out and the specific technical, structural and operational questions will be answered, and conclusions drawn. Construction companies, the government and regulators will need to be ready to carve out a detailed way forward – but only once the facts are clear. So far, the industry’s response has been to hide behind a veil of silence. And it really isn’t good enough. 

Anyone who thinks this is a case of simply getting out of the way of the inquiries’ firing line, appointing some lawyers and carrying on as usual, should think again. The ramifications of Grenfell will entail wholesale cultural and operational changes in the way we work and our industry is going to need to influence how this is done. 

Let’s consider some of the possible consequences. Imagine a whole new system of regulatory supervision focused on fire management. The culture and role of approved building inspectors changing fundamentally, perhaps putting them under the overarching governance of local authorities. Beefed up roles for government bodies supervising projects – think HSE site inspections with sharper teeth. Design scrutinised much more for operationality and usability than for buildability or aesthetics. It means everyone having to do things differently. The way buildings are designed and built in residential and commercial sectors will change. Likewise the way that products are produced, selected, signed off and used. This isn’t going to be just about residential towers; this is going to be about process, practice, culture and supervision. If you thought you were comfortable with the existing compliance frameworks, you’re likely to have to get to understand them all over again when change comes.

So expect a systemic overhaul that will drill down to individual companies, and the people within those companies. The risk of fire is transforming everything and we all need to be questioning what we do. 

And of course cost is going to be an issue, too. Specifically, it’s likely going to be about the responsibility that clients, contractors, architects and their quantity surveying partners have when going about assessing their risks with insurers when choosing procurement routes and products. It may sound obvious, but there’s likely to be a whole new level of supervision in everyone’s operational decision making that hasn’t been seen before. So how should folk react?

So far the reaction has been muted. But look ahead. It’s time for the companies, directors, CEOs, manufacturers, regulators, local authorities and, most importantly, the bodies representing the professions, to show leadership. To talk about the implications. To talk about the challenges. To air the problems. To find the solutions. To provide the transparency. 

This week we learned that the Grenfell Tower public inquiry will not publish its first report in Easter as had been hoped. Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the judge leading the inquiry, pointed to the scale of the task as the reason for the delay. But while we wait for the inquiries’ interim reports, are we supposed to just sit on our hands? Surely we can begin to talk more generally about best practice and how we should be responding to what occurred? We at Building want to encourage that conversation. What should happen? How should the professions react? How can we start to do better? Speak up, air the issues, explore a positive way forward.

Email me your views at tom.broughton@ubm.com and we’ll be sure to present the resulting issues in a fair manner in 2018. In the meantime, have a restful Christmas break – but keep half an eye on building.co.uk to keep up with all the news.