My last thought piece for SpecFinish  considered the fallout from an inconclusive election and the dangers for our sector of the uncertainty that generated. Then came the terrible and tragic events at Grenfell Tower. We may not know the exact cause of the fire but we all recognise the culture that delivered it.       

There are rightly calls for wholesale change, and after years of sniping at ‘unnecessary  regulations’, we may have to reverse the attempts at cutting red tape.

But what were those regulations that were consigned to history? Might they have led to this tragedy? That is a more difficult question to answer. We all complain about red tape but when asked which regulations you would like to get rid of, invariably a room full of  construction specialists will be unable to name one. In fact, they will usually include some they feel should be added.

So, it is not necessarily that the government has revoked some essential piece of safety regulation; it is more that they have set the tone. Regulation is an unnecessary impediment to innovation and progress, usually dreamed up by some faceless bureaucrat that the government can do nothing about but accept and implement.

As a consequence, you have a culture of non-enforcement. You can therefore ‘value engineer’ without true regard for the impact upon the overall design. Changing one product for another within a system was considered  acceptable. As an industry, we assemble products rather than build a single integrated product. The finished building will look like the design but will be, in truth, very different. The simple fact that the average building consumes between 200 and 400 per cent more energy than the design intent is the ‘tell’. This is  important because the energy usage is a test of the building services but also, crucially, the building fabric; has it been built properly? The answer must be a resounding no. The very holes the heat gets out of are the holes the fire and smoke can spread through. It is the equivalent of selling a VW Golf, delivering a Skoda and then saying it is the same thing. The Skoda may be a good car, but it is not the one I ordered.

At the very least there is a culture of neglect of building regulations, as we have seen with the delays to Part B of building regulations, which include fire regulations. The role of Building Control has progressively been downgraded; with the provision of private providers, this adds a commercial dimension to the checking of buildings. It is not about doing a thorough inspection; it is ‘can you do it cheaply?’ and ‘can you help get around more expensive requirements by beneficially interpreting regulations?’

The process was clearly identified in the recently published Edinburgh Schools Report into the closure of 17 schools in Edinburgh following a wall collapse. A number of  witnesses to the inquiry identified a desire to reduce the cost of fees as a major factor in deciding the level of provision of effective  inspection of construction, rather than a  serious assessment of the risks of not providing for adequate independent scrutiny.

Consequently, with little or no chance of prosecution, a culture of non-compliance is prevalent. And this is portrayed, or it was until Grenfell, as a victimless crime.

The Edinburgh Schools Report considered that it was unlikely that the poor construction was limited to the structural walls and when they looked they found other problems with the build. Many of the issues related to a lack of understanding and poor levels of skills.

This culture of neglect will hopefully be addressed and redressed with Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of the Engineering Employers’  Federation (EEF), leading a new independent review of building regulations. One thing we can expect is a greater scrutiny of the systems we build and a far greater requirement to prove that you have met the design specification.

Certainly, members are reporting a much greater interest from main contractors and clients about what products were installed on projects. In this new post-Grenfell world, there could be less uncertainty. You will know what product needs to be installed, what process is needed to install it and which people are competent to install it. This would level the playing field and benefit the more competent companies over those who choose to cut corners.

David Frise
FIS chief executive