The National Children’s Hospital, and Why Costs Go Up

This is a post about the cost overruns at the National Children’s Hospital. This is big news lately, with some cost overruns that appear truly staggering – from an initial approved costing of €570m, to a point where the government have acknowledged that it may cost €2bn or more.

The problem with the question of costs, and overruns, is that fairly subtle and detailed issues can end up costing enormous amounts of money. The quoting of multiple, massive figures in the media just begs any observer to roll their eyes, mutter “typical,” and forget about it. In fact, some areas seem to be very atypical, and some are worryingly commonplace. This is an attempt to unpick the difference.

Going through cost overruns is difficult, because there are different kinds of extra cost, and in this instance we’ve only got incomplete information. Therefore, it’s hard to tell them apart. Some of them are, frankly, inexplicable; they could be due to some terrible mistakes by people in charge, or vacillating by the client, or some other factor we haven’t been told about yet. Some of them appear to be down to deliberate omissions, i.e. things that weren’t included in the initial costs but were always known about and aren’t a surprise. And others are the sort of inevitable overrun that will always occur on a project of this size, no matter who’s building it-

What do you mean, inevitable? Sounds like you’re making excuses.

Not really. Some increases are inevitable. Inflation, for example. You do a costing at the very start of a job. If it’s of even a vaguely large size, it will take a year to get from there to the point where you’re asking the contractor to price it – and prices will have gone up in the meantime. In construction, standing still costs money. You can, if you’re clever, factor inflation in from the start – but you don’t really know how bad it will be, so you’re guessing.

Between start and finish, there are many other ways that a job can go over budget – or at least, that the budget has to increase. The faster you want to go, the more likely this is to happen.

For starters, the design brief will change. If you’re doing a large, complicated building, you might have to consult with hundreds of individuals to figure out exactly what they want. No single person knows exactly what all the surgeons / radiologists / occupational therapists / insert-specialism-here need and besides, the criteria are always changing as their professions evolve. You could compile all that information before you start, but it will take a long time (see the bit above about standing still costing money). Besides, you still have the human factor of someone coming back with “Sorry, I forgot to say, I also need…” – so you start, using the best information you have to allow enough money, and fine tune as you go.

And there’s mistakes. When that initial cost estimate is made by the Quantity Surveyor, they don’t know all the information – they can’t know all the information until the building is finished. So they make assumptions. So does everybody else – the architects make assumptions about how the design will work, the engineers make assumptions about the loadings, the mechanical and electrical engineers about the level of services needed. Those assumption should be professionally made and broadly reasonable, but they won’t all be right.

Well, I don’t hear about private sector jobs going this far over budget…

Look, don’t get me wrong. Something has gone really horribly wrong with the National Children’s Hospital and we’ll get to that in due course. But there’s a few points here.

First of all, private sector jobs do go over budget, too. You don’t always hear about it, because they don’t announce at the start what the building is going to cost. But google some of the stories about Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium and you’ll see that any project can get into a mess.

There’s also a couple of issues that apply to the public sector and are unavoidable. Firstly, public sector jobs tend to be more complex than private sector ones; and also, because the private sector jobs have a fixed budget, they will tend to adjust what they’re building rather than pay more. If a private sector job is 50% over budget, they’ll cut the building back. With something like the National Children’s Hospital, you can’t reduce its size or compromise its finishes or leave out a couple of departments. You have to pay more.

OK. But why are all the different prices being reported on the NCH? Why does nobody seem to know the actual cost?

Part of what makes this difficult to unpick is that there’s a number of different figures floating around and being reported. There’s the initial government costings; the initial tender price; a revised tender price; and the estimated final cost, allowing for future overruns. In addition, there are two variations on the figures; a cost for the “core” scheme, i.e. just the hospital, and a cost for the overall scheme which includes satellite facilities at Tallaght and Connolly hospitals. Plus, those figures are sometimes quoted with VAT, and without.

Essentially, the cost has gone up at every stage. The cost for the overall scheme appears to have gone up by (roughly) a further €450m, and the tender process alone inflated the price by €260m.

Hang on, isn’t the price meant to be fixed at tender? The contractor quotes a price to get the building built?


So why are the costs still going up?

OK, we’ll start from the start; most people struggle to see why, if you are hiring a contractor to do a fixed-price job for an agreed fee, costs should overrun at all. That, surely, is what a “fixed-price contract” means. After all, if you order some clothes from Littlewoods, that’s a contract – and it’s not like they can show up at the door and say “actually it’s forty quid more than we promised, bad luck!”

The costs of construction contracts change because they’re designed to change. Having a construction contract with a completely fixed, no-extras-at-all cost is technically possible, but it would be completely uneconomic to do so. Think what would be involved and this becomes clear. The design team already produces heavily detailed drawings, but drawing and itemising every single thing on a reasonably complex building would go from (say) 4 months to something like 9. The contractor has to take the risk on anything going wrong, even things beyond their control. You have to produce an incredibly detailed survey so that there are absolutely no overruns whatsoever. And every professional involved – dozens of people – has to agree to make no mistakes whatsoever, not even the tiniest error, or to cover the cost if they do.

You can ask people to do this. But you’re asking them to take a huge risk, and they will charge you a small fortune to do it. Nobody – not the private sector, not the public sector, nobody – builds things this way, because it doesn’t work. Instead, the professionals involved warrant to do a professional, competent, skillful job and your design team work bloody hard to limit your exposure to extra costs. You allow contingencies. And you have contracts that allow costs to change to cover unforeseen extras. If you didn’t do this, nothing would ever get built at all.

OK, but is that model – design it, get a price, and accept some cost overruns – the only way?

No. One of the most popular is design-build. This is where you get the contractor to design and build the building – he hires the architect, not you – based on a fixed cost. Often, these do come in on budget (although that’s often, not always). They’re also generally agreed to be more expensive, and – crucially – the quality of the detail and finishes tends not to be as good. So you get an inferior building for more money, but on the plus side you do have cost certainty. That’s the theory, but having worked on many design-builds, I don’t believe it’s a good way of procuring something like a hospital, where high building standards are critical.

The National Children’s Hospital used a hybrid of the two, called a 2-Stage tender. This is often used for large, complex jobs. The design team produce an outline design – maybe the level you might see for planning permission, with a bit more information added – and an approximate bill of quantities is produced. After this there’s a Stage 1 Tender, where several firms bid based on this outline information. The lowest is then selected as the preferred bidder, and can give feedback as a more detailed design is developed. Once the detail design is finished, the contractor gives a revised cost – the Stage 2 tender – based on the completed design and the rates they previously submitted. At this point, there’s an opt-out; the client can decide that the costs are too high, and stop the project.

There are two big benefits here, in theory. First, it’s quicker; and second, you get some contractor expertise during the later design stages.

How well did this 2-Stage process work?

That depends how you look at it. The initial costing from the government for the “core” hospital was €650m. The lowest tender, from BAM, came in at €723m (€637m + VAT). Given that over 2 years of high construction inflation had elapsed between the costing and the tender, that’s not really too bad. The government intended to find savings during Stage 2 which would get the project back on budget, but they only found about €20m – and ran into all sorts of overruns.

The build time was extended by 9 months, for reasons as yet unstated; this added €102m. Engagement with the clinicians, plus the detailed design of all the equipment they needed, went way over budget; it came in €130m more expensive. Throw in some other overruns (remember that story about the sprinklers?) and you have a tender figure of €1bn (€890m + VAT). That’s an overrun of €350m from the initial €650m costing on the core hospital facility.

That’s a bit bloody much, isn’t it? And we taxpayers have to fork out the extra.

Yes, it is a bit bloody much, and throws up more questions than answers. Why was the build time extended by 9 months? And how was the equipment estimate so far out? Most importantly, what works are not going to go ahead, in order that the Children’s Hospital can proceed?

All that said, it’s not necessarily “costing you money,” as such. It doesn’t automatically mean that the public are getting poor value for money; it could mean that the €650m estimate was far too low to begin with. What’s more disturbing is the possibility that other projects could be denied vital funding because the government got their sums wrong in the first place.

What about these other figures? I’ve read €1.4bn, €1.7bn, €2bn…

This is where it gets confusing. These are costs for the overall project, including the satellite facilities, including or excluding an additional IT-based package.

The overall project, including the St James’s hospital and the satellite facilities, was costed at €983m by the government in 2017. This excluded a further €291m allowed for works on IT and various other “extras,” which is being carried out by a separate government body and so was costed separately.

The €983m figure is now being quoted at €1.433bn, so a €450m overrun. The IT isn’t doing too badly – it’s gone from €291m to €300m, giving a grand total of €1.733bn. The “over €2bn” figures seem to be political guesswork, based on various other costs that various health bodies might incur moving into the building, but it’s impossible to tell how real these are.

So what is the overrun?

The work on the St James’ site has massively overrun, going from a €650m initial estimate to just over €1bn. We know roughly what has caused these increases, but don’t know why. It would appear that the initial €650m estimate was simply too low to begin with.

The satellite facilities have gone up €100m, from an initial cost of about €330m. We’ve got very little detail on how or why this has happened.

And finally the package of “extras” has gone from €291m to €300m, a pretty modest increase.

This gives a total of €460m. About €55m of this figure is VAT, and therefore not massively important – after all, VAT is a tax, so ultimately it goes back to the government – it’s simply money that the government is paying to itself.

This is still way too much and the public deserve answers. Most of it seems to be costs going up at the detail design stage as the players involved realised just how complicated the hospital was going to be.

Are contractors lining their pockets? And what’s all this about low-balling?

Leo Varadkar referred to low-balling yesterday; essentially that contractors artificially lower their prices at tender stage, and then pile the costs back on after they’ve been awarded the job.

Well, it happens. Contractors don’t do this for fun; contracting is a very expensive, risky business and they do it to make money. The big players are experts at getting jobs, and making money from jobs. You do the first by keeping your tender prices as low as possible. You do the second by pushing your prices after tender as high as you can, in as much as the contract allows you.

Ireland’s entire system of tendering encourages contractors to find weaknesses in the tender drawings and specifications or in the building contract, omit whatever they can, and lower their price as much as possible at tender – and hence be the lowest tenderer and be awarded the job. Afterwards, the cost of those omissions will be loaded back onto the project as an extra. This is a recurring hazard of any architectural job, one that means Ireland habitually produces poor quality buildings, and could do with serious examination.

There’s a lot more I could say about this, about how the government contracts were replaced by Public Works Contracts in the noughties, and how these sort of “attacks” on the contract became more and more common once the government had (needlessly) replaced a 25 year-old court-tested document with a new, untested one that had a great many issues. I’ve got anecdotes about millions of euro worth of work being omitted from tenders, because a sentence in the contract isn’t phrased very clearly. I can talk about how unreasonable clauses in the government contracts have directly put people out of business. Maybe I’ll get to write all that fun-filled stuff in the future.

But: at the moment, it doesn’t seem to have been the big problem. The Stage1-to-Stage2 cost increase has €22m in extra payments to BAM, which is a substantial figure but – let’s face it – the government wishes that was the problem.

(It may transpire that some of the other additional costs come from BAM leaving out things that other contractors included, and then the issue of low-balling tenders becomes more significant. At the moment, whatever Varadkar says, I can’t find any evidence that anything of the kind has happened.)

The truth is that, much as people like Steven Donnelly have got good soundbites out of €1.5bn increases, the overspend is nowhere near that much. A €1.28bn project has gone to €1.73bn, and counting. A good chunk of that is down to things like inflation, and to some extent it’s because the project was probably underpriced to begin with.

You mean it’s a non-story?

No, not at all. Apart from the costing being way out, another aspect of this is how hard it is to get information about the costing at all. There’s a difference between openness on paper – putting facts in the public domain – and really making figures available. It brings to mind The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: “The plans were on display in a locked filing cabinet in a disused basement with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

The government could have widely circulated a grand, all-inclusive figure of what they thought this would cost from the start, and asked us to judge them on this commitment. Instead, they appear to have gone out of their way to split everything up and make the total expenditure unclear, occasionally releasing figures at Public Accounts Committees and hoping nobody noticed. Now we have junior ministers in front of Dáil committees, with opposition parties seem to be going out of their way to shout at as many numbers as they can.

The responsibility of politician is to explain to us, the people, what’s going on in the business of government. What we have here is a clear pattern of them trying to avoid giving us that information. That, in my view, is more damning than any multiples of €1bn that get shouted from the rooftops by TDs looking for a headline – and very few of our leaders seem to care about fixing that at all.

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Urban economy, stupid

“There is a supply problem, we are not building enough, not building in the right location, and not building the right type of home. And also a demand problem. We Dubliners simply don’t like apartments, and what we are supplying is depressing demand for sustainable urban living.”

The above appeared in the Irish Times on September 7th in an article by Paul Kearns, a former DCC planner and author on urbanism. This was the latest of a few, rather depressing, articles along similar lines. Previously we had the tiresome magical thinking of serial spoofer David McWilliams, suggesting we build over Dublin Port, heroically ignoring the fact that Dublin’s bubble has very little to do with a lack of available sites. Probably as a reaction to this, the discussion has moved on: so alongside the pictures of six children sleeping in a Garda station, and the cries of “Just build the bloody things,” we now have nurdling thinkpieces that decry a lack of housing density and have decided to talk about sustainable urban living. “How we build our cities,” “Making a sustainable urban fabric” and “The trouble is all these people wanting houses with gardens” are subjects du jour for… well, for serious thinkers.

It should go without saying that I’m not unhappy to see urbanism being discussed in the media. Predictably enough, I’m all for it; at a point where we have to build a lot more houses in Ireland’s urban centres, and quickly – not just in Dublin, it should be made clear, although the issue is most acute there – then a high level of awareness about sustainable urban landscapes is a good thing.

However, this is simply the wrong type of conversation. It frequently turned relies on a “we Irish just don’t…” narrative that is elitist, reductive, and all kinds of boring. You would think the lack of sustainable apartments is part of Irish genetic makeup, like blue eyes or freckles or high-functioning alcoholism. Worse, rather than discussing urbanism as a tool for design in the future, there is an implication that a lack of “proper” urbanism – and there really aren’t enough inverted commas you can put around the word “proper” in that context – is directly responsible for the housing crisis.

Let’s not fence around things; this view is bilge. One could say it’s a fine example of confirmation bias, but that doesn’t go far enough. It’s an example of people placing themselves and their own expertise at the centre of a narrative, whether it belongs there or not.

The first of these articles I noticed was by Noel Brady, of DIT School of Architecture and Urban Design, back towards the end of July. It’s by far the most egregious. I found it embarrassing, frankly, and I was horrified to see other architects enthusiastically sharing it. It’s a cobbling-together of outright falsehoods, pet architect grievances, and batshit-crazy ideas that collapse under even a vaguely serious examination. The piece is difficult to sum up – it largely consists of great ox-bow lakes of turgid jargon – but the thrust of it is that pattern-book housing has excluded design professionals and left Irish people obsessed with detached and semi-detached properties, hence Dublin has an extraordinarily low housing density which has lead to the housing crisis and needs to be tackled in generational terms. Oh, and something about AirBnB. In the meantime, we can put houseless families into cruise ships. No, I’m not making that last bit up, and frankly it’s too ludicrous and unpleasant to even debunk. As for the rest…

OK, said the author wearily; chop-chop, timber.

If there is a particularly Irish attachment to one-off housing, it certainly doesn’t stem from pattern-book housing. You have to go back at least to Ireland’s roots as a rural society based on subsistence farming and subdivided land. That probably doesn’t go far enough, however, since “the tyranny of the 3-bed semi” is equally common in the UK; you possibly have to go back to the Roman conquest to trace the reasons. And there are perfectly practical modern-day reasons a family would prioritise houses, such as the flexibility to extend in the future. Blaming pattern-book housing is just taking a favourite architectural bugbear – we all hate Bungalow Bliss – and putting it centre stage, with no regard to reality. Similarly, while architects and urbanists love a good dense city, Dublin’s density is not particularly low* and there’s no real evidence that homelessness rates have anything to do with urban density anyway. Excluding design professionals is a problem, one architects love to complain about, but it affects housing quality without necessarily affect housing volume. Architects and urban designers dislike estate-type housing, not without good reason, but connecting this to a housing crisis is dangerous nonsense. So yes, these are real issues worthy of discussion, but connecting them to a housing shortage is spurious.

Eoin Drea’s article appeared a few days later. Drea is an economist living in an apartment in Brussels, and wrote about poor apartment standards in Dublin and how, um, it should all be more like Brussels. The article is marbled with a highly irritating sense of “look how enlightened I am, I live in an apartment, I know you can’t believe it” – OK, that’s not a direct quote, but it’s pretty close. However it’s a far less obnoxious piece, as Drea talks a lot of sense about the deficiencies of Irish apartments (they’re too small, and getting smaller), and does so in the context of this leading to problems down the line rather than being a root cause of the current malaise. He also partially discusses the issue as being economic, with a supply model “built on sand” and any developer currently incentivised to – at best – drip-feed supply. So it’s a shame that he reiterates the usual nonsense about how Irish people are obsessed with home ownership, and have an inbuilt scorn for apartments in favour of houses.  Worse, having repeatedly contrasted Ireland with European states, Drea offers no insight at all how Ireland might move from one model to the other. The implication is that nice apartments are something a city can just airily choose to have. In a sense this is true, but all development is a product of a very particular economic ecosystem, and it takes a huge effort to change things. None of this is to say that we can’t change this, or that we shouldn’t try – just that the conversation is a huge economic one, not a blithe one-liner that “we should build nice apartments.” We don’t have nice city-centre apartments because developers can’t build them and make a profit, apart from luxury models in the €500k bracket. While we rely on private developers, our housing provision will remain subject to the rules of profit – and housing requires such high initial investments that no sane developer would risk a new model of housing, the potential losses are catastrophic. The sluggishness of apartment building is not about urbanism or how “we just don’t like apartments,” it’s accountancy.

This means the truisms in Kearns’ article, which opens with the contention that it’s not a housing crisis, it’s an apartment crisis, just produce a feeling of tiring familiarity. The Irish just don’t like apartments, check. We need to build higher, check. The underlying assumption is that this is all about what planners – or maybe just “we” – do or don’t permit, as if there are developers queuing up to build these properties. “In what city with a residential crisis would it not be permissible to build a delightfully designed four-storey residential block with high ceilings on the overwhelming proportion the city’s residential zoned land?” asks Kearns, apparently unaware that a: it’s perfectly permissible to do just that and b: it’s not profitable to do so. If the piece has an oddity, it’s how forthright it is in dismissing any value to Dublin’s green spaces, sneering at the notion of protecting views of parks and the Dublin Bay coast. In truth, it’s first-year level urbanism and it adds nothing to the discussion.

At this point you might be thinking the following: OK, fair enough. But why’s this blogger guy getting so bothered about a few newspaper pieces?

Well first, there’s a small but grating problem, which is the issue of how urbanism is discussed. It’s talked about as if it’s a single agreed-on product, rather than a varied and textured approach that changes from city to city and is always bespoke. “Sustainable urbanism” is increasingly used as a synonym for apartments, bikes, pedestrianised streets, and coffee-shops. If this really were what “urbanism” meant, you would end up classing most of Manhattan as an anti-urban. Be that as it may, “be more like Brussels” simply isn’t a useful maxim for Dublin, because Dublin isn’t Brussels. If “we” really don’t like apartments, then “we” need to come up with a distinctly bespoke approach, not throw our hands in the air at the limited views of Dublin’s unenlightened plebs.

But more importantly – there needs to be a realisation that the housing crisis is nothing to do with architecture, or urbanism, at all. The issue is almost entirely distinct from city-building. The cold truth is that this issue is nothing to do with design and everything to do with economics. There are vast numbers of vacant sites and properties in Dublin’s city centre; their lack of development is about profit margins. And yet we have a succession of articles about the housing crisis which do not even mention NAMA, which is absurd. An enormous number of urban sites were sold by a government agency to hedge funds that have no incentive to develop those sites, which has created a highly localised increase in site costs. None of these articles make viable propositions how we might lower house prices, and none of them acknowledge that falling house prices create their own serious problems in any case.

In the context of how and where we build, an honest understanding of urban principles is essential. In the context of the housing crisis, discussion of city-densities is just self-indulgent twaddle. Worst, it’s the flipside of the government rhetoric that dishonestly placed apartment sizes and planning delays at the heart of the narrative. This isn’t, and never has been, about design.

I won’t pretend I’ve got the answers to the dysfunctional property market, but I do know we have to ask the right questions. Dublin’s housing crisis is the product of a purely economic brutalisation, and all else is window dressing. If it’s going to stop, all parties – no matter how well-intentioned – need to realise that, now.

*Brady’s piece says “Dublin has one of the lowest densities of any capital city anywhere in the world.” This is not the case. Dublin’s population density is 9th of EU capitals, and 24th of all cities. It’s higher than Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast and slightly higher than Manchester – none of these cities have a shortage of affordable housing. So linking density to the housing crisis is, let’s say, highly questionable.
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The Children’s Hospital, and Shouting “Fire” In A Crowded Building

A couple of days ago, a story appeared in the national news about the National Children’s Hospital and fire safety. The substance of the story is that the hospital have been granted a Fire Safety Certificate – this is the official document certifying that the design, as submitted to the Local Authority, is fire-safe – but Dublin City Council have attached some conditions to the document. The hospital are appealing three of these conditions to An Bord Pleanála.

That’s the substance. The reporting and responses use words like “derogation,” implying that the hospital are looking to wriggle out of the Regulations in some way. If this were happening, it would be illegal. I’ve since seem lots of people on social media referring to it in exactly that way: TDs and journalists alike are referring to them trying to “skimp” on fire safety.

This is completely inaccurate, and the tone of the reporting is rather misleading. I’m not a fan of many things about the way the Children’s Hospital (now titled Phoenix Health – good lord, give me strength) has been procured. But there’s no evidence at all that they are skimping on anything. And the sad thing is that there could be a real story in this, but when it’s swamped in wild language, it will never be found.

The rest of this is written as a Q&A, which I find a bit ugly, but seems the best way to explain what’s actually happening.

Are the Hospital looking to “derogate” the regulations?

Absolutely not. It’s all but impossible to do this legally.

What has happened is this: they’ve applied for a Fire Safety Certificate for the design. Fire safety is defined by Part B of the Building Regulations, and comes with over 200 pages of technical guidance. A Fire Safety Cert is a mandatory requirement for most buildings larger than a private house, and they’re a way that the local council (in practice it’s a full-time fire officer employed by the fire service) check the design and confirms that it complies with Part B.

That last bit is important. A Fire Cert doesn’t assess whether a building is safe-in-the-opinion-of-a-fire-officer. It assesses whether it complies with Part B of the Building Regulations, which are a national standard. Fire officers can’t throw in their own requirements just because they reckon they are necessary.

In the case the Council have granted the Fire Safety Cert, but they’ve also imposed additional conditions on the Hospital – including, apparently, that the hospital should fit additional sprinklers. The Hospital are appealing the conditions, because they believe they aren’t necessary for the building to comply with the regulations. If they’re right, the appeal will succeed. If they’re wrong, it’ll be turned down. What they emphatically aren’t doing is trying to wriggle out of complying with the Building Regulations in some way, because there is no way of doing that*.

But isn’t a good idea to go over and above the minimum requirements, especially given that it’s a hospital?

The use of the building isn’t really relevant to this discussion. The Regulations assess buildings according to their purpose. Hospitals have completely different requirements than, say, a school, so the regulations include for the special measures that might be needed in such buildings (for example, that some patients may not be able to leave the building). Yes, there are additional requirements for a hospital, but they are already built into the Regulations.

However, the whole idea that a building should go “above and beyond” the regulations, for something as fundamental as fire safety, carries with it a central flaw. If the Fire Safety Regulations don’t already ensure a building that’s extremely safe from fire, something is badly wrong. They are designed to ensure buildings that are exceptionally fire-safe and, if they don’t, it’s a bloody big deal that we all need to know about.

Surely it should be obvious whether it complies or not? Why is an appeal necessary?

Normally, it is obvious; it’s pretty rare for an appeal to happen. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity in large buildings – they tend not to comply with the standard guidance, and instead come up with bespoke, fire-engineered solutions – but even so, there aren’t that many grey areas.

Demonstrating compliance either means sticking rigidly to the official guidance, or providing very detailed and advanced computer simulations and extensive reports. These are created by a specialist fire consultant on the client side, and checked by a Fire Officer who works for the Local Authority. Two specialists working together, both highly trained in what constitutes fire safety, can usually agree without having to go to an appeal. So the big question is why, exactly, it’s happened here.

So are the hospital trying to skimp, or are DCC asking them to do more than they have to?

It’s impossible to know, yet; that’s what the appeal is for. It’s possible that DCC have added conditions that aren’t necessary, and they hence have no legal right to stipulate. It could be someone in the hospital trying their luck, after what can only be a balls-up in the design. It could also be a disagreement about standards (the Regulations refer to British and European Standards that in some cases have been superseded, so maybe someone’s trying to save money by complying with the older standards). It could be one of those rare grey areas which the two sides interpret differently. Until the appeal is complete we won’t know for sure.

Aren’t sprinklers just a good idea? Shouldn’t they be standard practice?

The media narrative appears to be one of a penny-pinching hospital who won’t fork out for sprinklers. This isn’t accurate – it would appear the hospital is fitting sprinklers, but not as many as the council would like. Even if they weren’t, it’s not as clear cut as you might think.

In new buildings, if sprinklers are provided, it usually isn’t to improve fire-safety. It’s either to protect property (the regulations are about keeping people safe, rather than the contents of the building) or because it’s cheaper to build the building with sprinklers than without. Including sprinklers loosens up other parts of the regulations; for example, a building with sprinklers might need fewer escape stairs, which can save a lot of money.

If a building has been designed to be fire-safe without sprinklers, and is then told to include them anyway, it’s a substantial loss. If the hospital think what DCC is asking is not fair, it’s not surprising they asking An Bórd Pleanála to look at it again.

Look, it’s only €2 million, and it’s saving lives.

Thing is, in a hospital, any expenditure is about saving lives. €2 million isn’t a lot of money proportionately but it’s still plenty, and if the regulations don’t require it then they shouldn’t be forced to spend it. I would rather it be spent on hospital equipment – how much is an MRI machine, exactly? – than wasting it on fire safety measures that aren’t needed.

Also, the structure and transparency of the regulations matter, and the regulations themselves matter. Dublin City Council can’t unilaterally impose new regulations. If the hospital believe that’s what they’ve done, they have every right to ask An Bord Pleanála to check their work. It’s not common, but it’s a standard procedure.

So it’s a non-story?

No, there is a story here, but we don’t know what it is yet. Appeals of fire safety certificates should not be necessary – this isn’t a grey area, like planning permission. Something is wrong here.

Option 1 is that the design team for a very expensive building, of national importance, have made such an almighty hames of the design process that they’ve designed a building that doesn’t comply with the regulations, and millions will have to be spent to sort it out. That’s news.

Option 2 is that Dublin City Council have taken it upon themselves to condition buildings to perform better than the current regulations require. If that’s on a whim, it’s pretty irresponsible. If it’s because they have a genuine concern that the Building Regulations are defective, then it’s deeply worrying. And that’s definitely news.

Sadly, the only non-story is the one we’ve been given, or at least has been implied – that the hospital is skimping on fire safety. That would be illegal, a huge scandal; but right now, there’s no reason to believe it’s true.

*In the interest of strict accuracy, it is technically possible to apply for a relaxation of the Building Regulations. This is extremely rare, but can be granted if – say – you want to open a shop in an original Georgian building, and a big ugly disabled access ramp would destroy a historical facade. Anyone trying to get a relaxation of the fire safety regulations, on a new-build project would a: fail and b: lose all professional credibility, as well as being laughed at.
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Whoever Has The Gold Makes The Rules

The cladding is coming down. Local authorities are already removing cladding from tower blocks; other areas of cladding have been sent away to be tested, and have come back failing. Residents are being rehoused for their safety. There is one story that the local council specified a fire-rated cladding for use on a tower block, but that was not the one that ended up being used on the building.

Philip Hammond’s statement that he understood the cladding to be illegal has been confirmed by the Department of Communities and Local Government. I agree with him, so I was surprised to see Arnold Tarling – a building surveyor, fire safety expert, and clearly a manf of knowledge and integrity – giving an interview in which he said the cladding was perfectly legal and that Hammond’s initial statement was “bollocks.”

I’m with the government on this one: in my view, the cladding clearly contravenes Approved Document B. Tarling’s argument is that Section 12.7 (which contains the requirement for limited combustibility) is titled “Insulation Products” and, as the cladding isn’t an insulation product, 12.7 doesn’t apply. I don’t go along with this at all; regardless of its title, 12.7 applies to insulation products and filler materials that form part of an external wall construction. The panels used on Grenfell Tower (Reynobond PE) consist of a polyethylene core between two thin sheets of aluminium. The polyethylene is therefore a “filler material” in the external wall construction and subject to 12.7. This seems to be the only reasonable interpretation and any other reading strikes me, frankly, as perverse.¹

There is a point worth developing here, though. Some people reading the regulations aren’t looking for reasonable interpretations, they’re looking for favourable ones. A well-drafted regulation doesn’t permit any alternative interpretation, even if it is a perverse one. So whatever this rule is, Tarling is right: it isn’t well-drafted.

There’s another, slightly less obvious question, and that’s the matter of who will be interpreting the regulations. This seems like a strange query – the answer, theoretically, is “anyone” – but it cuts to the entire culture of how a society chooses to construct its buildings and, by extension, the importance it places on the people living in them. That’s not just about the regulations that apply to construction – it’s about the way these projects are procured and structured.

In short: we need to talk about design-build.

Go back a couple of decades, and the overwhelming majority of building projects were procured in much the same way. The client (the government, or a company, or an individual) had a budget. They hired an architect and design team, who designed the building in detail, working to that budget. Once the design was complete, they got prices from about six builders. The lowest price won, and the builder had to build the project at that price; while this went on, the design team inspected what they were doing, making sure that everything was in accordance with the design. That’s condensing a long process into a paragraph, so it’s sketchy, but it’s essentially correct; this project structure is usually called “traditional build”. There are still a certain number of public jobs in the UK that are constructed as a traditional build, but then, there are still a certain number of wheelwrights.

The considerable chunk of public projects in the UK are procured as design-build, which is an entirely different structure. Instead of hiring a design team, the client hires a builder. The builder then hires a design team, who produce a design that allows the client to judge roughly what they’re getting; a cost is agreed, and the builder goes from there. The distinction between traditional and design-build is subtle enough – all the same people are getting hired after all – but important.

In a traditional build, the design team are in charge and their aim is to build the project as well as they possibly can, within the budget allowed – they don’t benefit from saving money. A design-build puts the contractor is in charge, and he is incentivised to build an adequate project as cheaply as possible. A traditional build contract is obviously open to poor construction, but a design-build actually encourages the cutting of corners. With a high level of control of contracts and technical specifications, it’s possible to limit this. It’s just difficult to imagine a tower-block cladding project getting that level of attention.

Grenfell Tower was a design-build contract. The role of the architects isn’t entirely clear right now, but they certainly had very little authority. We know this because their original drawings reportedly did show a fire-rated cladding, with fire breaks, and this is not what ended up being built. At some point, it was “value-engineered” and the cladding removed.

Grenfell Tower was a mass failure of numerous elements. We can be fairly certain that it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as catastrophic if the cladding had been right, or if the staircase has been kept fire-safe, or if the alarms had sounded, or if the fire-brigade had proper water supplies. I’d add something of which I’m nearly as certain; if this project had been a traditional build, the cladding would not have burned like it did.

This is what the question of “who reads the regulations” means. People in professional positions tend to behave as they’re trained to behave. Architects will read regulations in the most conservative way possible, not because they’re morally good people but because they’re terrified of being sued and gain nothing from cutting corners. In much the same way, Arnold Tarling believes the regulations are weak, therefore he reads them looking for weaknesses.

So contractors? They read them looking for loopholes.

Contractors (more specifically, the quantity surveyors employed by them) always try and find savings. That’s what they do, what they have been trained to do. There have been some aghast comments that the cladding used saved only £5,000 compared to a fire-safe cladding. I agree that this is appalling, but it also slightly misses the point. A project can consist of dozens of systems, and hundreds of products. £5k extra on one product, £6k extra on another… this can very quickly add up to hundreds of thousands, and turn a profitable job into a loss-making one. As a result, quantity surveyors are trained to look for cheaper constructions everywhere. I once had an argument with a quantity surveyor about an extra cost of £800 on a £13m job. That’s what they do.

It’s not a bad thing in itself, in fact it’s essential – without the restraint of a good quantity surveyor, an architect can easily blow a building’s budget. If you want the best possible project, within budget, then there should be a certain tension between all parties. However, design-build creates a situation where the builder / quantity surveyor has complete control and the architect has none. And let’s not forget that a decision was made to structure projects this way, to put the person looking for loopholes in charge of the project.

We know why: it’s because money matters more than buildings and, by extension, the people living in them. The grand irony is that design-build isnt better value for money, by any stretch of the imagination. If you spend £8.5m on a design-build project, a traditional build can give you exactly the same building for the same price or cheaper. Where design-build is cheaper, it’s simply because it has compromised the product – and this, the production of a poorer-quality building, is what government has decided is value for money.

Decisions reflect priorities. By making design-build the standard template for most government jobs, the state decided to prioritise saving money over the welfare of the people living in their buildings. In semi-privatising building regulations enforcement, it prioritised deregulation over safety. Also, although the focus on cladding has derailed the litany of other failures, there’s the question of what the council decided to fund. They could have put money into fitting sprinklers; into fitting a properly functioning centralised alarm system; into ensuring that all the front doors were fire-rated; into removing all fire hazards from the central circulation core; into fitting service risers for the fire brigade; into making the fire stairs completely safe so that residents could evacuate. Somebody chose not to do these things, to instead prioritise putting a cladding on the building that would make it look prettier for the people in the area who actually matter.

This is not just a story about dodgy cladding. It’s a story about attitudes to buildings and their occupants, about the people who live in buildings provided by their betters, about how society has spent decades prioritising cost over quality. Most of the public officials would probably object to the idea that the people living in buildings like Grenfell Towers didn’t actually matter. That may not be true, but the truth is certainly this: they didn’t, and don’t, matter quite as much as the bottom line.

¹  I’m basing things on more than this, for which it’s probably necessary to read sections 12.5 to 12.9 of Document B – go to page 95 of the PDF. Essentially, if an interpretation results in an illogical text, we can assume it’s the wrong interpretation.
Section 12.5 clearly states that limiting the fire risk from cladding is important, so if we assume 12.7 doesn’t apply to cladding, we’ve got a text which stresses the danger of combustible cladding but does nothing to police it. 12.6 specifically refers to external surfaces being Class 0, rather than external cladding – the implication being that the core of cladding is policed elsewhere.
It should also be noted that some claddings are available – Kingspan Panels that you see on a warehouse are an example – which are a metal shell with insulation fill. This creates a situation where a cladding is subject to the regulations if it’s filled with polystyrene, but exempt if it’s filled with petrol. Clearly we’re heading into the realms of the ludicrous here.
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When Banned Cladding Is Not Banned

Grenfell is beginning to feel like more than a horrific incident that has claimed the lives of as yet unknown numbers of people. It’s becoming a symbol of government neglect, of how little care and intention is given to ordinary people. The narrative that these people were killed because the refurbishment contractors would not shell out an extra £5000 is a powerful, sickening one.

Amid these narratives, it feels somehow tasteless to revert to forensic analysis of how this fire may have spread. Doing so, however, reveals that what I can only think of as homicidal neglect goes deeper, much deeper than general comment has yet highlighted.

I’ve already written that the problems in Grenfell Tower went a long way beyond the choice of cladding. However, the cladding is the natural place to start, and is at least symptomatic of what happened to other elements.

The refurbishment job would have fallen under the UK’s Building Regulations, and should therefore have been assessed and approved by Building Control, who are effectively the “policemen” of the regulations. The Regulations come with extensive technical advice, called Approved Documents; these are essentially the bible of what’s permitted, and any deviation requires the explicit agreement of Building Control. Rydon, the contractors, have stated that its work “met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards” – unless they are outright lying on this point, we can assume that the proper Building Control procedure was carried out and their proposed works were cleared for use.

This is where things get odd.

It has been widely reported that the cladding panels are considered acceptable for use in the U.K. and this seems to have been accepted as fact. In fact, it contravenes the Approved Documents [Edit: since I began the post, the UK government is challenging this and saying the cladding was not, in fact, permissible]. For high buildings, the standards increase: any insulation product or filler material must be of “limited combustibility” for buildings over 18m high (6-7 storeys) – see section 12.7. Limited Combustibility is defined in the regulations according to a European Standard – not only does the cladding used not come anywhere near complying, but the more expensive fire-rated cladding that has been cited in the news (Reynobond FR) does not comply either. A third type of cladding, designated Reynobond A2, should have been used.

So this cladding, which we have seen widely reported as “banned in Germany and the U.S.,” also contravenes the UK Approved Documents. And amid the focus on the cladding choice, we shouldn’t forget that the insulation behind the cladding has been forgotten – and this too was nowhere near “limited combustibility.”

So it would seem that Building Control – the policemen of the Building Regulations – raised no objection to this cladding being used. This leaves us the obvious question: how and why did that happen?

Here things get a little murkier still. The obvious assumption that most readers will make is that Building Control is a local authority or government body. They are not, or at least totally.

Under the Blair Government, the function of Building Control was devolved to allow private firms, hired by the person carrying out the development, to assess the design. This isn’t quite as bad as the Irish system of Assigned Certifiers, but it automatically pressurises the system in all sorts of ways. The Approved Building Inspector is not only somebody assessing a building, it’s also someone who needs to find work – and the people hiring them will be contractors. Any Inspector with a reputation for being a stickler will struggle toget commissions, so even the most morally upright person is now economically encouraged to be – ah – let’s say “flexible.” Because the private option now exists, local authority Building Control now has less leverage to get proper funding; the result of underfunding is that people are unable to scrutinise designs as deeply as they would like to.

There are three ways that this panel could have found its way onto the building: first, Building Control (probably an Approved Building Inspector) knew it was being used, knew it didn’t comply with the Approved Documents, and allowed its use anyway; second, the panel specification given to building control was not what went on the building, and – whether by design or oversight – the cheaper, more flammable version was substituted; third, the contractor and their design team simply didn’t think about the fire spread element, and Building Control just didn’t check the specification.

The first strikes me as enormously unlikely. The second two are both entirely plausible – and both point to the probability that this sort of breach can easily be repeated, over and over again, due to a lack of proper oversight. In the case of Grenfell Tower, where multiple failures lead to such carnage, we can look at that oversight happening across the board. The alarms were not linked. The staircase was not protected. There was no water for the fire brigade. Failure upon failure upon failure. This is chilling.

I’ll openly say that I simply didn’t think something like Grenfell Tower could happen. I thought that shoddy building would probably lead to a serious incident. I thought there might be some fatalities, or mass destruction of property. But this…? I thought that there were just too many failures needed, that nothing could be deficient in so many areas without someone in officialdom noticing, someone stepping in, somebody stopping it. I was wrong.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby writes about being caught in a crowd crush, nearly ten years before Hillsborough. Even though he couldn’t breathe properly, and even though he could pick up his legs and remain pinioned, he wasn’t particularly worried. People around him pulled funny faces. As he says:

“In England somebody, somewhere, knew what they were doing, and there was this system, which nobody ever explained to us, that prevented accidents of this kind. It might seem as though the authorities, the club and the police were pushing their luck on occasions, but that was because we didn’t understand properly how they were organising things… [people] were laughing because they were only feet away from unconcerned constables and mounted officers, and they knew that this proximity ensured their safety… [after Hillsborough] it occurred to me that I could have died that night, and that on a few other occasions I have been much closer to death than I dared to think about. There was no plan after all: they really had been riding their luck all that time.”

This is what I find upsetting. It’s true that the local residents had been highlighting issues for years. But there were probably lots of other residents who thought that, even if there was a problem here or there, nothing could be that bad. A power surge might cause a fire, but the smoke alarms would keep them safe; a fire extinguisher might not work, but they would run out of the apartment and use another one. Because it couldn’t be that terrible, nobody would actually let them live in a fire trap.

I was wrong, they were wrong. The state had been happy to risk their lives, all that time. To risk anyone’s.

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Grenfell: Not One Failure, Many

Trying to navigate the appalling fire at Grenfell Tower is a horrible task. It’s difficult to be forensic about this, and this isn’t intended to be a forensic piece. We don’t know or sure what happened, and pre-empting it is never a good idea.

One thing I have noticed is that many commentators are looking for a magic bullet: a single thing wrong that caused this appalling piece of (quite probably) mass manslaughter. I think this is a little misguided, for this reason: Grenfell Tower can only have happened if there was a massive number of failures. A lot of focus is being given to the cladding, and with good reason (we’ll come to that). However, if this was just the cladding, the death toll should have been minimal (and quite possibly zero). All sorts of people have completely failed in their duties here, and I think it’s important to run through how.

There have already been some – in my view – misguided pieces that have rushed to judgement about how this happened. So I think it’s worthwhile is to look at how the regulations work, how buildings like this are supposed to work, and thereby make it easier to understand the evidence as it comes out. Fire is a horrible and primal force, but the language around it is technical. Terms like “non-combustible,” “fire-rated” and “Class 0 rated” sound like they are synonymous, when they are not. In addition, the ways of making a building fire-safe are not always intuitive.

To give an example: Jeremy Corbyn – for whom I have a lot of time – talked about the need for sprinklers in these building. I happen to agree with him that sprinklers are a good thing, in a belt-and-braces way, and there’s something to be said for installing them in tall residential buildings. However, the lack of sprinklers wasn’t the primary problem here, the building should have been safe without them, and by focusing on sprinklers you let other people off the hook.

Similarly, residents have referred to a series of worrying defects by the owners, such as fire extinguishers not being tested and power surges within the building. These are not good, to put it mildly. However if it transpires that none of these were primary issues in what happened, it doesn’t mean the owners are free of all responsibility. Fire safety is about structure, and layout, and wall specification, and all sorts of complex things that can only have been neglected for this to happen.

Fire safety is achieved by combining a number of factors. The regulations are split into five parts, which I’ve combined into four (My second part, Internal Fire Spread, is in fact two sections).

1. Means of Escape

This, essentially, is the big one. If a fire breaks out, it should be simple, safe and straightforward for people to exit the building. In an apartment building this means that there should be a central alarm system, which sensibly links the alarms in each property; each apartment should be fire-separated from other apartments, and from the shared corridors, which in turn are completely separated from the staircases; emergency lighting so people can find their way out; travel distances controlled, so nobody is ever too far from a place of safety. To get this to work needs a lot of detailed work on door widths, on fine-tuning the alarm systems, on providing fire-protected corridors and stairways, and (preferably) providing a choice of escapes.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is this: stairways are absolutely sacrosanct. No matter how much you’ve stuffed up everything else, the stairway being protected means that the fire is contained to a single floor and everybody else can get out. As Grenfell only had a single stair (a pretty abysmal arrangement that’s strongly discouraged these days), the safety of the stairway is absolutely critical. The fact that the stairwell was excluded from the recent refurbishment, and reportedly had gas pipes running through it, is enough to make anyone aghast. It’s known that there was a ruptured gas main, making this stomach-churningly critical.

As a final note – regardless of what happened to the cladding, the stairway was fully internal (See plans here). On the face of it, no matter how much the fire burned, it should have been safe to evacuate.

By definition, if anyone is killed or injured by fire, the Means of Escape element has failed. In this case, regardless of how the fire spread through the building, it’s clear that this failed completely. Nobody could get out. The emergency lighting, reportedly, didn’t work. The alarms did not warn residents. This is appalling; it’s also exactly the kind of thing that can easily fail with unscrupulous building owners, because the only thing that highlights their approach is… well, something like this. That’s why we need to be talking about oversight first and foremost.

2. Internal Fire Spread

This covers both linings and structure. The lining section is pretty straightforward; most parts of the building should be almost exclusively lined in substances that don’t aid fire spread (this is where “Class 0” terminology comes in), and it’s there to stop a room bursting into flames. The structure part is perhaps more important. Effectively, if one discrete part of a building (say an apartment) does go on fire, the boundary walls (”Compartment walls”) should be fire resistant – usually by at least one hour, but for a tall building this figure increases. This is a basic principle called compartmentation. In theory, the fire in one apartment should burn itself out without affecting anyone. At the very least, people should have ample time to evacuate the building by the time the fire spreads, and the fire brigade will generally have enough time to fight the fire before it breaches the compartment.

Many of the things about which Grenfell’s residents previously complained – power surges, for example – are extremely dangerous and could start a fire. That’s unforgivable in itself. However, fires can also be started by careless behaviour or bad luck. If the building’s compartmentation was working, that fire simply would not have spread beyond one apartment. Even if the apartment compartment failed, the fire should not have reached the stairs.

In this instance, compartmentation obviously failed catastrophically. The usual hateful shitrags (the M**l, The S*n) have started focusing on the guy whose fridge started the fire, but blaming him is pathetic. The fire should not have spread. Now, there’s a fair amount of evidence that, rather than the apartment walls failing, the fire spread externally. Which leads us to…

3 .External Fire Spread

It’s no good having compartments if the fire can jump the gap externally. There are rules about fire spread, which means that the area around compartment walls need to be treated carefully. There should be 1.5m between zones of unprotected wall around a compartment line. For a stairs (as mentioned before, keeping the stairs safe is critical), that gap widens to 4m – and for avoidance of doubt, any wall with a combustible surface cladding is not protected. If there are cavities or air gaps between cladding and the main wall, they need to be blocked at these lines with a fire-resisting material.

This means that the issue isn’t the cladding being “flammable”. Even if the cladding burns away in one zone, it shouldn’t spread to any other zone.

Extract from Approved Document B

For tall buildings, external fire spread becomes even more critical. I haven’t seen the following reported widely, but it seems crucial to me: there’s a requirement that cladding be of “limited combustibility” for buildings more than 18m high (Approved Doc B, Section 12.7).

Doc B appears to prohibit the use of combustible materials for high buildings

While “Limited combustibility” isn’t the same as “non-combustible,” the cladding really shouldn’t burn very much at all. This really doesn’t seem to have been the case, and doesn’t square with the contractor’s insistence that the cladding was installed in accordance with the building regulations.

(Here’s an important note: a lot of the early coverage noted that the cladding was “Class 0 rated.” This is one of the ways that fire safety gets a big complicated. Class 0 means that fire won’t spread along the surface of the material; it doesn’t mean it won’t catch fire. Something being Class 0 doesn’t mean it won’t burn.)

It’s so obvious that it’s almost tasteless to say it, but this seems to have failed appallingly.

4. Access For The Fire Brigade

This is partly about how close a fire engine can get to a building, but there’s another dimension.

Fire engines can’t run their ladders 50m up in the air. The fire brigade have to get into the building, via a safe route, and fight the fire from the inside. Their safe route is a firefighting stair, or in some cases a firefighting lift.

In many cases – and Grenfell Fire is one – the escape stair and the firefighting stair are the same thing, so people escape down and the fire brigade work their way up. In this case, the fire stair was completely inaccessible. This left the fire brigade with absolutely no way of fighting the fire at all. At most, they would have been able to access the first ten or twelve storeys with ladders. Anyone above that couldn’t be helped.

There’s also the question of how they fight the fire. There should be risers within the building – essentially, pipes full of water for the fire service to connect hoses to. This seems not to have been present either, meaning they simply had no water above a certain height.

So again, this element completely failed.


These are general headings. It’s impossible to precisely apportion blame at this point. Even if we assume that the new cladding was the main way that the fire spread, we don’t know if it failed because it wasn’t up to the task, or because it wasn’t detailed carefully, or wasn’t installed properly, or because a cheaper material was substituted… there’s no way of being sure right now. There are a number of parties (owner, architects, the builder) who will have questions to answer, and some of these people may yet be blameless.

What we do know is that if the problem was just that the cladding failed, there still should not have been a catastrophic loss of life. So there has been not just one failure, but a whole multitude of them. The likelihood is that a great many people have been negligent.

The local council state that the building was regularly inspected, but this is where the question becomes political. An “inspection” can mean anything. Fire safety is complicated and technical, and many of the measures used to keep a building safe will be hidden. It takes a lot of time – and therefore money – to thoroughly test the fire safety of a building. I’m not sure whether councils are sufficiently resourced to do this. Measures that really could save lives – we’re talking insitu testing of wall construction, or fire drills conducted by a third party – are so expensive to be out of reach. In the UK, approved Building Control Assessors do not have to be specialists in fire (Irish readers should note that Irish regulations are different, and Fire Safety Certificates are assessed by specialists as a separate process).

One would hope, at the very least, that this will lead to some serious prosecutions. It should also lead to an overhaul in how we assess fire. Over the coming days and weeks, no doubt we will hear of this being called a tragedy. It is, of course. But we should also be clear; this tragedy came about as the result of a series of deliberate actions or omissions. Everybody deserves to understand what they were.

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