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.

About Mike Morris

A British / Irish architect who practiced in Ireland and Ontario, now working in the U.K.
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