What has the construction industry learnt from Grenfell?

An independent review, public inquiry and outpouring of rage; is it enough to force safer construction in the UK?

Fifty-four minutes past midnight, 14 June 2017, Behailu Kebede places a 999 call to report a fire in Flat 16 on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey, 67.3m block of flats in North Kensington, situated in the West London Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.

Within the hour, flames had reached the roof of the building and spread horizontally, escalating into a major incident that officially claimed the lives of 72 people, left a community outraged and in mourning, a country stunned and an industry in a reputational crisis.

The cause of the fire is widely believed to have been the wiring in Kebede’s fridge-freezer but culpability for the scale of devastation has extended to the web of firms involved in the refurbishment of the tower between 2012 and 2016. The refit of the council-owned block fell short of safety standards, prompting questions about the culture of the construction industry and regulatory compliance. 

Calls for accountability and change, dialogue and political efforts have initiated developments but there’s a sentiment that progress is slow and insufficient. If change is still wanting, what will stop a tragedy from repeating?

Pre-Grenfell, sub-standard quality and safety in the construction of buildings were not uncommon.

“I was aware of similar problems with what happened to Grenfell,” says Sean Keyes, managing director of Sutcliffe, a consulting engineers and surveyors firm. “Unfortunately in construction and engineering, it takes a catastrophe to change the way things are done.”

Phase one of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which was created to examine the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire, brought to light various refurbishment flaws. The use of polyethylene-cored cladding panels on the tower walls was cited as the primary cause of fire spreading so quickly, noting that using them breached building regulations. 

Then there were several tonnes of polyisocyanurate insulation (mostly Celotex RS5000), combustible and toxic when it burns, used on the building’s exterior. Combustible insulation was used around the windows, yet cavity barriers were missing, which would have stopped the fire from spreading in the gaps between insulation and cladding panels as per UK building regulations. 

Such hazardous materials were used in a bid to cut costs and keep within a designated budget while prioritising aesthetics over fire safety. Issues around fire safety weren’t significantly considered and seemingly the architectural companies, contractors and subcontractors – Rydon, Arconic, Studio E, Harley Facades, CEP, etc – involved in the refurbishment or its supply chain – all thought safety considerations were someone else’s responsibility.

What made the incident more hazardous was the fact that residents’ previous concerns fell on deaf ears as they lived in a fire trap with exposed gas pipes and faulty lifts.

“There’s a host of things that typically go wrong when a catastrophe happens.” Keyes says. Poor materials, poor workmanship, poor supervision and dismissal of residents’ concerns were part of the suite of problems occurring in the background as the prelude to the tragedy. Following the fire, a “lesson-learning” exercise was instigated in the form of an independent review led by Dame Judith Hackitt, whose final report was published on 16 May 2018.

The report into building regulations and the fire safety of high-rise buildings, in particular, sought to look into the regulatory system around the design, construction and ongoing management, compliance and enforcement. 

Hackitt damningly stated: “… there is a need for a radical rethink of the whole system and how it works. This is most definitely not just a question of the specification of cladding systems, but of an industry that has not reflected and learned for itself, nor looked to other sectors.” 

As London’s Lawrence Stephens solicitors outline, there already exists the Building Regulations, which provide detailed guidance on the safe construction of buildings generally. It has been criticised, however, for being ambiguous and unclear, particularly concerning cladding standards; it also consists of 1,600 pages. The Defective Premises Act 1972 has also been key but this has now been significantly amended by the Building Safety Act 2022 (BSA), which received Royal Assent on 28 April 2022.

The BSA also amends the Architects Act 1997 and the provision about complaints made to a housing ombudsman, and it has encompassed some of the 50 recommendations put forward by Hackitt.

It essentially serves to provide clarity around those responsible for a building’s safety; key introductions include the creation of a Building Safety Regulator, Homes Ombudsman Scheme and to provide oversight of the new system with powers of enforcement and sanctions and a Gateway system, which will see greater scrutiny on buildings as they progress through design and construction.

“One of the first parts of the Building Safety Act that will be brought in is an extension to the limitation period… from six years to 30 years for retrospective claims,” explains Andrew Parker, a partner and head of cladding at Forsters law firm, “Essentially meaning that a swathe of buildings constructed since 1992 may now be the subject of new claims from residents against building owners and developers.” 

Extended liability has simultaneously been a source of contention and commendation in the industry, on the one hand freeing leaseholders from responsibility for rectifying dangerous cladding and other safety-related construction faults, but it will have consequences for contractors.

Some argue that there needs to be more clarity over the scope of definitions rather than extended liability, however.

Chris Waine, director at Hive Projects, a project management consultancy that works in construction, insists that the “devil is in the detail”.

“It feels a little bit like trying to hang responsibility on individuals. And I think there’s a place for that. But it just feels a bit political in the way it’s written,” he says, adding that the emphasis should be on genuinely improving the standards in construction. In practical terms, identifying who is specifically responsible is difficult due to the interdependencies around a construction project.

Other measures since Grenfell have included the government’s Building Safety Fund (BSF), a deal between Michael Gove and large developers to fix fire safety risks and the Fire Safety Act 2021, which supplements the Fire Safety Order (2005) and clarifies who is responsible for reducing fire risk on the premises. 

“To think that you wouldn’t consult a fire safety expert, when you’re building a property like this – I think it’s hideous,” says Clive Holland, an industry expert and broadcaster for Fix Radio with 20 years of experience in the construction sector. 

The ongoing inquiry has also exposed general fire safety in high-rise and other buildings to be poor. Data from the Fire Door Inspection Scheme (FDIS) reveals that almost a third (31%) of the fire door inspections failed due to improper installation – meaning the doors were never fit to perform the life-saving role of holding back fire and smoke. 

Emma Dent Coad, a Labour councillor who served as the MP for Kensington and Chelsea when the fire broke out, notes the considerable lobbying efforts around modern methods of construction, which focus on off-site construction techniques such as mass production and factory assembly. These have been touted as a solution to build social housing. One of these methods includes timber frames.

“It’s just not safe,” she says. “If you just google ‘fire in timber frame buildings’, there was one literally a few weeks ago…people do not build right, they build cheaply,” she adds, lamenting that the UK does not have a sufficiently skilled workforce, having relied on Eastern European skills for decades without skilling up across the board. “We’re using semi-skilled workers on skilled jobs.”

Cost is unfortunately still an issue that’s encouraging bad practices, according to the former architecture historian. Furthermore, the housing crisis means buildings are being put up quickly rather than built thoughtfully, and Brexit has meant absorptive costs of construction materials. Add inflation, the end of the red-diesel rebate and a genuine worry about the cost of dealing with historical defects, it’s still unclear to some that budget and bottom line won’t trump a sincere look at placing safety first.

Others see Grenfell as a wake up call for the industry and despite sluggish progress – most provisions will take 12-18 months to take effect – high insurance premiums will penalise those daring to use substandard materials, acting as a de facto enforcement mechanism.

Holland says the key thing is that building control should be involved at the design and planning stages rather than retrofitting. “The Grenfell Tower fire should never, ever happen again. Otherwise, those lives will have been lost for absolutely no reason.”

The Grenfell Tower fire certainly galvanised introspection but concerns remain over whether changes have only addressed those issues raised high on the political agenda. There is still a multitude of factors that continue to threaten building safety in the UK, many of which boil down to cost, shortages and house-building ambitions that haven’t matched the slow pace of change of the regulatory landscape.