The Grenfell Tower Review and what it Means for Construction in the UK

The Grenfell Tower Review and what it Means for Construction in the UK

31st May 2018

It’s now been nearly a year since the nation watched in horror as Grenfell Tower burned, causing at least 72 deaths and more than 70 injuries.  Harrowing live footage of the incident was interspersed with recordings of heart-breaking phone calls from those trapped inside as they said goodbye to relatives and prepared to die.  The fire raged for more than 60 hours while fire fighters and other emergency services battled valiantly to save lives and stop the conflagration.   The rapid spread of the fire is thought to have been accelerated by the exterior cladding used on the building, a cladding which is in widespread use across the UK and calls for an inquiry resulted in an independent review of building regulations and fire safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt which was published on May 17th 2018.     

The review examined building and fire safety regulations and related compliance and enforcement with a particular focus on high rise residential buildings.  The report sets out more than 50 recommendations for government on how to deliver a more robust regulatory system for the future.  According to the report, UK building regulations are stuck in a “time warp” and public confidence in the system has been shattered, especially in light of the fact that it’s been discovered that inspectors had approved hundreds more towers wrapped in flammable materials across Britain.  The process under which materials are tested is hampered by commercial confidentiality and assessors are paid by materials manufacturers, demonstrating a clear conflict of interest.

The Hackitt Report calls for an independent national body that will approve the safety of buildings at the design stage and check them at regular intervals, punishing designers, developers and builders if things go wrong.  The body would have power to levy unlimited fines and potential prison sentences in the worst cases and Hackitt has studied the aviation, nuclear and oil and gas industries for inspiration where safety always comes first and every decision is taken with safety in mind. 

However, despite expressing a hope that the government would ban the type of flammable cladding used on Grenfell Tower (which had undergone recent refurbishments), she believes that regulations need to be less, rather than more prescriptive. 

The report has left both residents and owners of more than 300 tower blocks across the UK no wiser about what materials could be used to replace failed cladding and the government’s consultation on combustible materials will run for another couple of months until the end of July.  Cross party support for a ban on cladding systems like that used on Grenfell Tower is increasing and a public inquiry into the fire which began last week is likely to see pressure for change.  Even architects who have used combustible cladding have expressed concern that the review failed to act on the urgent need to immediately protect lives through a more detailed programme of simplified but improved regulations, standards and guidance.

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