“Building control departments in councils have been left toothless and eviscerated while the authority of fire officers and architects has been weakened in favour of profit. Look where that has got us.
I am an architect in private practice with considerable experience in the design and delivery of a range of buildings in London, including high-rise residential buildings. The terrible Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington was entirely avoidable.
It was not an act of God, but the tragic outcome of a growing void in the responsibility, expertise and single oversight of large construction projects. This has largely come about due to the breaking up of what I would call the triple safety lock around project delivery.
The first is:
building control, ensuring that increasingly complex building regulations are properly implemented. Building control departments in many local authorities have been eviscerated. They are invariably under-resourced with no teeth. Often a subset of planning departments, they lack the authority to carry out what is arguably the most important part of a local authority’s remit – to ensure the safety of its residents.
Furthermore this function has been partly privatised, with a range of companies competing for the business. It is often those companies with a reputation for gaining “easy” approvals that increasingly dominate the market, further undercutting the council building control.
The morale among many council building control officers is extremely low. I completed a small complex project in an inner London borough last year. The council building control officer I worked with was excellent, but told me that he could not cope with his workload, and was unhappy with the way the department was run. He has since left the council.
Fire officers play a crucial role in ensuring that all fire regulations are met, and devising a fire strategy for a project. Building control acts as a conduit to local fire departments to assess that all fire regulations have been met, as well as bringing their own experience to bear.
In early 2007 I was working on a large refurbishment project in the West End. We were informed by the fire officer who was reviewing the project with us that in the near future fire officers would no longer play an active role.
A new form of self-certification was to be introduced, with the onus on the developer/owner to ensure a project met all fire regulations. This took no cognisance of the fact that different buildings could have very different fire requirements. The fire officer looked me straight in the eyes and told me that in his opinion this was a recipe for disaster.
The third part of the triple lock:
Is to ensure that all materials used in a building are fit for purpose – obviously particularly important in the case of fire safety. In the past, architects have specified construction materials and have then been in a position to ensure that the specified materials were used. This is increasingly not the case as performance specifications enable alternative materials to be used, often selected by the developer, contractor or sub-contractors.
With architects now seldom having the authority to insist on specific products being used, there is a tendency to go for cheaper materials, without necessarily understanding the impact or potential knock-on effect.
Public safety should not be privatised. Putting a monetary value on human lives is unacceptable. The triple lock should be recognised and strengthened.
Bring back building control to its rightful place in local authorities, working independently of the planning function and the private sector. Bring back fire officers working closely with council building control to scrutinise proposals and carry out proper inspections on all projects. Bring back the specification of materials to a single point of responsibility under the architect or engineer responsible for the specification of materials, working with the building control officer and fire officer.
Allow the experts to do what they know best without interference from politicians or those who tend to take shortcuts or the cheapest option. Look where that has got us.
Deon Lombard has a private architecture practice.”