Cosmetic Damage — Was the Grenfell Fire a Consequence of Gentrification?

In seeking someone to blame, we need to make sure we choose the correct target.

Image credit: Ben Sutherland

 Brutalist architecture is one of the most divisive styles currently in existence. I have no doubt that in future, we will come up with something even more controversial, or ugly, depending on your viewpoint. Grenfell Tower was originally designed in this style. I say originally, because the infamous cladding brought its external appearance more up-to-date, closer to the style of 21st-century builds.

The appearance of Grenfell Tower is important, because it was one of the aspects that its refurbishment hoped to improve. Well, it looks a right state now, doesn’t it? The trouble is that some people in the media have capitalised on this idea with scant regard for the facts, and while it's a compelling narrative that the fire was caused by a desire to improve the view for nearby wealthy residents at a knock-down price, it's a tangential truth at best.

The residents of Grenfell Tower were badly let down by the Council and contractors, but if we're going to get to the bottom of it, we need to look for the truth, not the snappiest headlines.  As well as my writing career, I’m trained as an architectural engineer — so I know what I’m talking about (contrary to the opinion of men on Twitter — OMG did I have fun arguing with them). I only know as much about Grenfell as the publicly available information will tell me, although I can put it into a general context because of my background — I can't talk specifics as the inquiry is ongoing. There has been an excellent Panorama documentary on it [also available through this link], which provides about as much information that was available a week after the tragedy, so I‘d recommend viewing that, if you want a simple overview of the what, how, and why of what actually happened on the night of the fire.  This Newsnight film discusses the human cost of the disaster.

I happen to know that the idea that "austerity policies caused the Grenfell Tower disaster" is untrue — technically. I suppose that on aggregate it could be argued that the effects of gentrification were an aggravating factor in the deaths of those 71 residents. But it’s a stretch. There’s more merit in the “social murder” argument that John McDonnell was slated for, even though it was less comprehensible to the general public, many of whom have not studied Engels (this also got me into some interesting battles on Twitter).

I have personally worked on projects in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) — not Grenfell, though — and so I know that the borough is full of conservation areas (38 of them, if we’re being precise), places with significant architectural heritage. That has implications for the designers and builders, and for the general public. Any new developments need to satisfy additional rules above ordinary Building Regulations and contractual obligations, and these govern not just the appearance of the site in question, but how it fits in to its surroundings and the impact it has on the overall character of the area. Grenfell Tower itself is not in a conservation area, but it is visible from two such areas that border it.

And that is where the claim that poor people’s lives were sacrificed so that rich people didn’t have to look at an ugly tower block come from. But to argue that, you do have to take a rather convoluted route to the conclusion, for the following reasons:

Yes, the conservation areas in RBKC are today mainly populated by obscenely rich people, although this has not always been the case. The area was originally constructed to attract rich families, but the level of wealth and the demographic living in the area has varied over the course of the 20th century in particular. The Lancaster Road Estate (which Grenfell Tower is a part of) is an exception to the present trend, but most areas in the UK contain some social housing, from the richest boroughs right down to towns where virtually everyone lives below the poverty line. Conservation areas have also existed long before the property boom of the 1990s and 2000s, and the point of a conservation area isn’t to ensure that rich people have something nice to look at. There are plenty of conservation areas in dirt-poor places. This incomplete list of designated conservation areas in England has some poorer areas in the bottom half of the table (clue: they’re the ones in the North). The place that I grew up in is one of the best-preserved Georgian towns in the whole country, and it’s also one of the most impoverished. Just because we’re skint doesn’t mean we can’t have nice things.

But more to the point, a designated conservation area exists to protect our architectural history — for everybody. It’s for people who lives there, people who pass through it, and even people who’ve never been there but have a vague idea that it exists. The reason that Grenfell Tower’s external appearance mattered to RBKC Council is because they have a duty to protect the area for all of us. That having been said, I still think the cladding looked shite, but there probably wasn’t much that they could have done differently.

The cladding wasn’t just specified to tart up the outside of the building; it also improved the energy-efficiency of the tower. The Daily Mail published a ridiculous piece on how the Council's "obsession" with green targets led to the tragedy, while the good old Daily Express managed to link it to EU bureaucracy.  Well, those energy-efficiency measures sound awful. I mean, who would want to reduce their electricity bill and live in an apartment that doesn’t have a howling gale running through it? Madness! So, the idea was to benefit the environment and the residents — this notably had zero effect on the lives of the local bourgeoisie.

So far, so good. But then we get to the bottom line. The difference in price of the FR (fire-resistant) panels versus the ordinary panels was widely publicised in the days after the disaster. It was £2 per square metre, leading to commentary that these lives weren’t even considered worth the saving of £300,000 that this made to the overall build cost. Having worked on projects with a social housing element, I can tell you that this is false. It does appear, however, that the possibility of terrible consequences was just not considered.  There’s quite a lot of “banter” that happens on construction projects, and I’ve heard the odd off-colour remark about council tenants. But nobody, literally no one, makes budgetary decisions based on assigning a monetary value to a human life. No one will have even thought that the choice of cheaper cladding could precipitate a disaster like this; they will have simply noted that the Fire Regulations appeared to permit the use of non-FR cladding (this is disputed). If it met the standard, there would have been no obvious reason to doubt its suitability. Because the construction industry is notoriously cutthroat, and there’s always another contractor out there who will undercut your bid if you’re not as economical as you can possibly be within the constraints of the regulations, there would have been an incentive to go for the lower standard. In these situations, £2 per square metre can mean the difference between profit and bankruptcy.

Social housing is generally built to a lower specification than an equivalent dwelling for private purchasers and tenants. That doesn’t mean lower quality, necessarily; it often means that it has the “optional extras” removed. This could be anything from the fancy flats having a jacuzzi, where the council tenants only get a bath, to differences in the type of finish used for the kitchen worktops. Both flats would still be constructed to a high standard, and both would be equally habitable. The lower specification should not mean that substandard products are allowed to sneak in. Unfortunately, it now seems that the process has not worked as was intended and it was indeed possible for corners to be cut.  There could be other shortcomings that we've not found yet, and we will need to unravel whether this is because of a lack of oversight or gaps in the regulations.

Every material and method of installation on a project needs to be reviewed and signed off against British & International Standards and the Building Regulations, to ensure that it meets a minimum standard. This is a common criticism of the UK regulations — that it does not reward design that goes over and above the bare minimum. It’s possible to write a contract that specifies a higher standard, and indeed we have thousands of amazing buildings that have been designed to be aesthetically and functionally exceptional. But a council tower block doesn’t usually fall into that category (except this one — which now has apartments selling for in excess of £4 million).  This means that best practice is not always followed, although that does not usually end in catastrophe, just a poorer finished product.

The Grenfell disaster has highlighted another issue with the Building Regulations that urgently needs to be corrected. A building is a system made up of various elements all interacting with each other. But the design, regulation & certification of UK buildings is fragmented and sorted into individual siloes, with potential conflicts overlooked or only dealt with once the project gets to site. If a building is refurbished, it must be demonstrated that the new elements bring the whole building up to a present-day standard. But if you’re only updating certain systems, it can be easy to miss effects on the overall structure. Additionally, we have an unfortunate tradition in the UK of only updating the law once a tragedy has already occurred. We legislate reactively rather than actively, and still only demand that the builder works to a minimum standard. The Woolworths fire, the Hillsborough disaster, the sinking of The Herald Of Free Enterprise (the world’s most accurately-named boat), and now Grenfell; they are all tragedies that could have been avoided if only we’d shown a bit of foresight. Instead, we wait until somebody dies, and then we change the law.

It’s a matter for the Grenfell inquiry to determine exactly how, but somewhere between the building’s completion in 1974 and its demise in 2017, the integrity of the fire-resisting elements was compromised in a catastrophic way. This was not picked up by the designers, installers, or the Council’s Building Control department, although the residents did have something to say about it — and RBKC Council threatened to sue them for speaking up. I’m sure that the inquiry and police investigation will have some questions regarding this matter.

It is the job of a Council’s Building Control Officers to inspect buildings to ensure that they are constructed and maintained to meet the (bare-minimum) standards set out in the regulations. I’ve worked with some excellent and obsessively thorough Building Control Officers, and that’s the way they need to be. Our lives are literally in their hands. But we are all acutely aware of the excessive cuts to local council budgets, and the requirement to provide a competitive service.  I'll leave it up to you to guess what effect this might have on the quality of inspections and approvals.

In addition to the cladding, it now transpires that there were other problems with the building, mostly related to the fire safety concerns of the residents (who really did their homework, and continue to campaign for justice to this day), but also regarding other issues of build quality and design defects. It would seem that whatever savings were made, something drastically wrong has happened even in the implementation of what was agreed to be installed. While no-one intended any harm, decisions were made that had terrible consequences. Numerous voices are now being listened to that were ignored until a disaster happened - and not just residents. There were numerous construction and fire safety professionals that had repeatedly raised concerns, but perhaps it was assumed that because the regulations didn't forbid it, nothing bad would happen. We have got to put more thought into this. Designing and constructing a building is about more than ticking boxes. We have to take an intelligent view of the entire process and think beyond the lowest standard we can get away with.

And so, there has been a cumulative effect leading to the deaths of 71 people. And money was at the heart of it. But it was unintentional, and the result of many intertwined factors, including many that I haven’t gone into here. Some of those aren’t related to profit or prestige at all, but I’m only focusing on the ones with such an element. As a result of this disaster, we must resolve to do things differently, and there’s not going to be a simple solution. Flaws in the design process, the structure and formulation of the regulations, the procurement process, the running of local authorities, and the nature of capitalism itself, need to be addressed. Will anyone be held to account? I have no idea. If someone is, I hope that it’s the right people. Based on the cost element alone, it’s possible to identify individual areas of inquiry which are likely to have contributed to the whole. But when investigating any disaster, it’s possible to go back and identify actions that seemed benign at the time, when in fact they were deadly. The “social murder” argument says that the systems in society that lead to the deaths of the underprivileged are responsible, although if the inquiry names “the system” without identifying culpable individuals, it is unlikely to satisfy many. But that may be the answer that we get. My only hope in that case is that we actually do something to fix it.

 

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Cosmetic Damage — Was the Grenfell Fire a Consequence of Gentrification?