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Editorial: London’s towering inferno raises questions of principle beyond fire control

Specification takes on political overtones because standards are based on lowest common denominator

The horrific residential tower-block fire in west London brought to mind dialogue from the powerful 1974 Oscar-winning film, Towering Inferno:

ARCHITECT: I thought we were building something that … where people could work and live and be SAFE! If you had to cut costs, why didn’t you cut floors instead of corners? 

BUILDER/DEVELOPER: Now listen. Any decisions that were made for the use of alternate building materials were made because I as a builder have a right to make those decisions; if I remain within the building code and goddammit, I did! 

ARCHITECT: Building code? Jesus. Building code. Come on, I mean that’s a standard cop-out when you’re in trouble. I was crawling around up there. I mean, duct holes weren’t fire-stopped! Corridors without fire doors, sprinklers won’t work, and an electrical system that’s good for what? I mean, it’s good for starting fires! Hoo boy, where was I when all this was going on? Because I’m just as guilty as you and that goddamned son-in-law of yours [the electrical subcontractor]! What do they call it when you kill people?  

We must await the findings of the public inquiry into the fire at Grenfell Tower, where nearly £9 million was spent on an over-cladding scheme to upgrade appearance and thermal performance of the ’70s social housing block. Since we do not know precisely what happened, it is unreasonable to start ascribing blame at this stage. 

The reason for quoting the dialogue from that distressing film, therefore, is to give a reminder that fundamental aspects of responsibility and liability can be a matter of ambiguity rather than clarity, and that the balance between regulation, innovation, construction standards and design ideas is just that – a balance not an absolute. The question this fire raises is a wide one: where does the buck stop, not simply in relation to fire, but also in respect of general issues surrounding safety, security, amenity and well-being? Is it good enough to say that everything which ‘meets code’ is acceptable, without further thought?

Since the 1970s, the role and responsibilities of architects have come under commercial attack by other organisations, which may be limited liability businesses operating without insurance, for example. Ongoing pressure to meet budgets, while itself not a bad thing (and indeed inevitable), has resulted in linguistic dishonesty, in which cost-cutting morphs into cost control – but because that sounds far too prosaic is then dressed up as ‘value engineering’ to make it sound ‘professional’. Often it is still only cost-cutting. This is aided and abetted by regulatory regimes which focus on generic standards. Specification takes on political overtones, at least in the public sector, because standards are based on lowest common denominator.

A final piece in a complicated jigsaw is the nature of regulation itself: every time an improvement is made, the existing building stock becomes almost criminalised, suggesting that upgrades are constantly necessary, whatever the price. Under these circumstances, it is critical that, as built, there are clear lines of responsibility and liability for what was designed; that what was built is in fact what was designed; and that there was systematic checking of critical elements during construction.

This will not happen if commercial pressure increasingly requires ‘risk transfer’, better described as ‘passing the buck’. Architects, whatever their insurers may think, should stand up to be counted. It is also time to question the culture of design-and-build, where architects are employees of contractors and may be barred from speaking to owners, or making judgements on construction quality. Is this really the way we wish to continue? 

Lead image: Grenfell Tower – by Clifford Weardon and Associates and built in 1972-74 – following the fatal conflageration that could so easily have been prevented