Last month Tony Bingham went to Grenfell Tower to see the aftermath of the tragedy for himself; here, he looks at the scope of the inquiry and what it might tell us about the way we procure buildings 

As I concluded last month, the Grenfell Tower tragedy wasn’t a piece of one-off negligence: what went wrong was the ordinary way we procure our buildings. The Grenfell inquiry, which has now begun, is in my humble view the most important investigation into how our construction world procures buildings. 

The public inquiry will be an extensive one, covering 125 issues, under 13 main headlines:

01 / The original design and construction in 1974 

The theme is to ask what regulations, standards, norms applied then – but also to ask what was done to check compliance (notice that final point).

02 / Modifications since 1974 

Why were they done? What regulations and standards applied to the modifications, and what was done to check compliance? Again, notice the cross-checking.

03 / Internal modifications in 2012 –16

Who compiled the specification? Why? What was the purpose? Did they comply with the then standards? What elements failed in the fire? Why? Was anyone responsible for a failure of the specification? Did these interior modifications take account of the modifications to the building exterior? In deciding the interior modifications, was advice available from fire authorities and manufacturers, and was it taken? If given, was it right? Was there a chain of decision-makers? What influenced their thinking? Who were they?

The Grenfell Inquiry, which has now begun, is in my humble view the most important investigation into how our construction world procures buildings

04 / Exterior works during 2012–16

This will look particularly at the cladding and insulation. Why was it done? What precisely was done, how was it fixed, what were the improvements? Did the specification consider its effect on interior elements of the building? Were the installed cladding, insulation, fixings and windows in accordance with relevant regulations, standards, legislation, and industry practice? And if so, were any of those features inadequate insofar as the nature and immediate causes of the spread of fire? Who was responsible, if inadequate? Who advised or informed whom? In any case what information is available about exterior works and fire and fire resistance and safety? Was advice sought or given or published by component/materials manufacturers; was it good?

Going further, was any thought given to the combination of individual components (such as cladding, insulation, windows and method of fixing)? How commonly used are these particular cladding panels, the insulation, the windows, the methods of fixing, in the UK and elsewhere? What lessons are to be learned from the use/regulations of such matters elsewhere in the world? Who took part in deciding the specification; what motivated the people in the decision-making chain? What factors and circumstances were taken into account?

05 / Fire and safety measures within the building at the time of the fire 

To the extent that this is not covered in item four above, this section asks: what fire safety measures were in place, did they comply with regulations, and are those regulations adequate? It asks about whether checks and assessments or inspections were carried out, at what intervals and by whom, and if they were properly done. Was the scope of these inspections enough to consider evacuation of the disabled and other vulnerable residents? Who was in the decision-making chain and what motivated each of them? Who was sought to give advice and who did – and was it correct?

06 / Inspections

The inquiry next delves into what fire and other relevant inspections (including Building Control inspections) were carried out – during the recent renovations, and between the completion of recent renovations and the fire – and by whom (and what does any paperwork record?). Were the inspections adequate? Further, what were the qualifications or training of the inspectors? Was it enough?

07 / 08 / 09 / 10 /

These topics are about management structure, meaning governance, and also about communication with residents, fire advice to residents, and response by authorities to recommendations. This section looks at history, meaning other problems in the building and how the management dealt with them.

11 / The fire

The vital issue is what was the cause and seat of the fire? Then, how and why the fire progressed? Crucially the issue is what contribution was made by the exterior wall construction, the surfaces, openings and internal structures abutting them? Then what contribution did internal structures, stairwells, shafts, vents, cavities and fire-stopping make? Looking at comparable fires in high-rise buildings elsewhere, what loss of life occurred?

12 / Fire authorities

The fire authorities’ performance too is within the inquiry, as to its Grenfell response.

13 / The tenant management organisation

So too, the endeavours past and present of the tenant management organisation. Why is the inquiry so important? Because these recent decades have seen responsibility for design and specification writing prised out of the hands of architects and engineers. So worrying. Going further, the process of examining the actual work done, checking compliance with the specification, the building of a building, seems to be based on a shrug, a half-hearted glimpse. These headlines, these 125 questions, will winkle out this wrong direction, and it’s then up to us to put it right.