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22 February 2021

More to the Grenfell Towers Fire Than the Headlines: Lessons for Us All

jenga

Most people in the English speaking world are aware of the Grenfell Tower Fire in London 2017 which killed 72 people. They are also generally aware of the cause being an electrical fault in a refrigerator leading to a fire spreading up through the building using the external cladding which was aluminium composite panels (ACP) as a fuel source from its polyethylene core. The cladding was added as part of a refurbishment project several years earlier which had a primary option of improving the thermal performance of the building in this social housing tower block.

This summary of the cause is correct, but as usual in disasters, there are more complex reasons and issues sitting behind why a non-compliant and not fit for purpose product ended up being installed in the first place. Immediately after the fire a report into the English building regulatory regime was commissioned by the United Kingdom Government. The report by Dame Judith Hackitt’s entitled ‘Building a Safer Future – Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety’ identified the regulatory issues associated with the fire. This report has been associated with being the report on the fire.

What is not known to many of us in New Zealand is that there is an ongoing public enquiry into the fire taking place in London. I was made aware of it through discovering a very informative BBC weekly podcast which summarises the week's proceedings.

I am not sure if any building project has been subject to such an extensive legal, technical and contractual analysis as the Grenfell Towers refurbishment project. The enquiry which is in front of a retired judge and two lay members has three Queens Counsel (QC) assisting who in are turn supported by 30 junior council plus many others reviewing the 30,000 plus documents. There are 12 expert witnesses each providing reports in their areas of expertise.

Phase 1 dealt with what happened on the night of the fire and the response of the emergency services and their preparation for a fire of this size. Phase 2 which is currently underway is focusing more on the technical aspects of the fire and the reasons for it. Every decision made on the project and related matters such as product certification has been examined in detail with exhaustive cross examination by Counsel. Many of those involved in the project have had the uncomfortable experiences being required to explain decisions which now reveal shortcomings in professional practice.

From what I have heard to date, the Grenfell Towers refurbishment had the hallmarks of many projects in New Zealand these include:

  • A client under financial pressure leading to a desire for lower cost design and construction solutions with poorly managed value engineering activities that found savings but without the compromises (such as compliance matters) being identified and mitigated
  • A number of changes to contracting parties (including technical specialists) losing continuity of project knowledge meaning that many critical issues going unresolved
  • No clear allocation of responsibility for key aspects of the project
  • Some professional advisors working outside their competence having never been part of a large social housing refurbishment project
  • No one being responsible for overall design integration and ensuring that key issues were resolved as the project scope changed

Overlaid on this were:

  • A building official tasked with dealing with compliance issues being totally overloaded and without senior management and mentoring support
  • Product suppliers not disclosing to certifying bodies reports that drew into question compliance of their products
  • Product suppliers threatening legal action when certifying bodies sought to remove or reduce the scope of certification
  • Perceived ambiguity within building regulations which allowed for creative interpretation of words
  • Product suppliers seeking to enter the emerging new market for the refurbishment of social housing tower blocks ‘rebadging’ existing products as being suitable for these projects without the evidence to support this use
  • A fire regulatory system that allowed buildings such as these to be constructed without sprinkler systems
  • And of course, a bit of an ‘old boys’ network which by-passed some normal due diligence in procurement practices

Fortunately, some of these factors are less common in New Zealand. Our small size, more robust processes, better regulatory systems and a more intimate building and construction sector moderates some of these factors.

However, no project or system is ever perfect. Nor are clients, their advisers, building officials and product compliance specialists. Designs are never perfect nor is construction. We are all humans working under pressure with resource and information constraints.

Fortunately, in most projects weaknesses in one part are picked up by other parts and compensated for or changed. This is project resilience and it means that in most cases completed projects meet the client brief, comply with the Building Code and are generally completed on time and within budget.

On the downside, we are also structured into silos — a feature unique to the building sector. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. What this means is that we should all be ensuring that our contribution to a project is cognisant of the bigger picture even if that is not what we are contracted to do.

Once completed, the public enquiry should become a key education resource for all entering or currently in the sector. Becoming a good builder, architect or professional engineer is not enough. We also need to learn that we are participants in a system that relies on each of us doing our part well but remembering we are part of a bigger project delivery system. Recognising and managing project risk is a role we all share — no one wants another Grenfell Tower Fire let alone be in a team that leads to one.

Through Building Confidence Ltd, I provide building regulatory advice on matters relating to the requirements of the NZ Building Act including its regulations like The Building Code and associated documents — such as acceptable solutions and verification methods.

Visit www.buildingconfidence.nz or contact me on john@buildingconfidence.nz to learn more. 

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