Whatever else might have happened in 2017, the construction industry was never going to be able to look back with pleasure
In truth, whatever else might have happened in 2017, the construction industry was never going to be able to look back with pleasure on a year in which the Grenfell fire happened – a devastating tragedy that raised fundamental questions about the standards, processes and culture of the industry. Shortly after midnight on 14 June a fire started in a faulty fridge on the fourth floor of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block in Kensington, west London. It quickly spread over the outside of the building, resulting in the deaths of 71 people, mainly from its upper stories.
Given the way that the fire spread, questions were immediately raised over the £8.6m refurbishment of the block undertaken two years previously, which had added a cladding system designed to make the flats more energy-efficient. As more details emerged about the aluminium composite panels used to clad the tower, questions centred on how ambiguities in the wording of the Building Regulations appear to have allowed the specification of flammable materials.
Ultimately, despite the refurbishment having been given building control approval, subsequent tests by the government established that not only did the cladding system installed not meet (its interpretation) of Building Regulations, but also that 266 other towers had cladding systems that similarly failed the tests. Government critics highlighted its failure to undertake a promised review of Building Regulations fire safety guidance following a previous fire, at Lakanal House in London’s Camberwell in 2009.
This time the government wasted no time, with Dame Judith Hackitt (pictured above) appointed to lead a review. As well as questions about regulations of cladding materials and systems, the fire prompted huge debate about the need or not for sprinklers, guidance around allowing tower blocks with just one means of escape, and the competence and accreditation of people and materials in the industry. As Building went to press Hackitt was still expected to announce interim findings before the end of the year.