Procurement issues lie at the root of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, argues our legal columnist: it’s dangerous for architects and engineers to cede control of how their specification is implemented

I went; I stood in the street. I looked in real life at Grenfell Tower. Horrid. And I felt frightened.

Odd word? Our industry, this building and civil engineering industry, is hell-bent on doing a good job. Nobody, not a single person in construction, would ever dream of putting those residents of Grenfell in harm’s way. Frightened? Yes, because this horrid event – and the fact that upwards of 220 buildings (and counting) elsewhere are seriously in similar doubt – takes me to a point of saying that we are doing something very wrong, every day. 

Grenfell wasn’t, isn’t a piece of one-off negligence, nor a one-off mistake; it looks to be ordinary building work, ordinary procurement, for umpteen buildings. All the brains, all the industry reports, all the gurus coax us to produce good stuff, and we think that we are. We’re not. Not if what went wrong was the ordinary way we procure our buildings! 

I have in front of me a first-class letter sent out by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It travelled to local authority folk across the land. This letter is headed “RECLADDING OF TALL BUILDINGS”, and its stated purpose is to “draw attention to the likely issues which will arise when building owners carry out recladding work on tall buildings (above 18m in height); and make building control bodies aware of the guidance which the Department has provided to building owners following the Grenfell Tower fire.” 

I describe it as first-class because it tells me where to look in the Building Regulations; it coaxes me to take care in this way and that way when investigating what’s already in place and what might replace the material. It warns about structural features, fixings – and yes, yes, fire safety – as well as performance in moisture, heat and cold, planning rules and more besides. 

I muttered … This is tricky stuff. And I began to think outside the recladding box. Think about how tricky it is when deciding what to specify for foundations, pipes, bunds, superstructures, roofs, HVAC, swimming pools, schools, old people’s homes and more and more. Specifying what’s to be used is tricky. Designing, compiling the correct specification, is ever so demanding … Read the communities department’s four-page commentary (they do not call it advice): it is fiendishly deep work requiring very special skills, training, qualifications and years of experience to yield insight. Compiling a specification is a special job. But whose?

Grenfell wasn’t, isn’t a piece of one-off negligence, nor a one-off mistake. It looks to be ordinary building work, ordinary procurement, for umpteen buildings

In this industry there are only two candidates for compiling the specification: (1) the architect and/or (2) the engineer. (True, the engineer comes in various uniforms: structural, HVAC and so on.) These, for me, are the folk with letters strung out behind their name, who are qualified to design.

To design and specify the partitions, the ceilings, the walls, the floors, the stairs, the escape routes, and on and on. 

Okay, okay: the architect and the engineer can seek help; in fact he or she must do so. That help, though, is not the route to relieve this highly qualified person of responsibility and dump it on somebody else. If a manufacturer is called in to talk materials, beware the salesman’s glossy brochures. Call in the builders, call in the subcontractors, to talk about what works – but don’t pass the buck. Early contractor involvement is a must for designing the specification, but not for passing the buck. The contractor is on board: but you, architect, and you, engineer, are to be the specification deciders. And notice I am calling for “specifiers”. They are people qualified formally to build the specification.

But that’s only the half of it. Now comes the actual procurement. By all means, encourage the contractor who wins the job to look for and share in savings. But their suggestions should be acceptable only if the specifier agrees and keeps responsibility for the revised specification.

No builder or subcontractor or supplier must unilaterally prune. The specification is to be obeyed to the letter. 

As for carrying out the works, installing the goods, it is the specifier’s job to ensure that what he or she laid down to be obeyed is being obeyed. This is the inspection regime. The specifier becomes the “watchman”. Nothing is done without ensuring that the nooks and crannies of the specification actually go into the works. This is the inspection regime. Check to ensure that the regulations are being complied with via the specification. The specifier is not the only watchman on the job; so too are his or her colleagues: the building inspector, the clerk of works (oh, do bring back the clerk of works) and the building surveyors.

And yes, it all has to be paid for. The architect and the engineer are underpaid today. They used to be in charge. Get them back in charge. They specify; they inspect. And for those of you who are long in the tooth, you will be saying: “We used to do it like that.” True. As for being frightened: yes, it was looking at and being next to the tower; it told me how fragile life is.