Following several fires in residential tower blocks in London and other UK cities, the most tragic being the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, major inquiries have been conducted or are ongoing into the causes and lessons to be learned and which are the focus of intense domestic and international interest. The outcomes are having and will continue to have far reaching implications well beyond the performance of cladding and external wall systems which has been the initial focus of legislators and regulators. In this my parliamentary work allied with my professional insights has given me a particular perspective on the many moving parts involved with the response to such disasters.

Grenfell Tower was not the first serious UK tower block fire, nor will it be the last but in terms of its immediate loss of life and destruction it stands not only as a physical landmark in the West London skyline but also as an accusing finger to the heavens and icon of widespread systemic failure that also has implications for new build as well as older or converted blocks.

critical life safety fire risksWithout prejudging any pending inquiry outcomes it is perhaps appropriate to comment on some basic principles that have come to light. Firstly the failings that resulted in catastrophic spread of fire in a high rise block are not confined to upgrades of older buildings or indeed high-rise ones; secondly that the assumptions made 40 years ago as to principles of industry self- regulation were not well founded in practice however politically attractive they may have appeared; thirdly, beyond the architectural appearance of external wall systems and the provision of a weatherproof and thermally insulated exterior, the critical interactions between these and other construction principles in which the integrity of the building as a whole is only as good as its weakest part; fourthly, the huge significance of such events for professionals, component manufacturers and constructors and their liabilities in terms of both legacy and future construction, both in the UK and globally; finally, the significant social and economic out-turns for residents in their own homes, their finances and that of the lenders and insurers who underpin the residential values in market economies.

In 1968, a newly opened tower block at Ronan Point in the London Borough of Newham partially collapsed after a gas explosion in one flat. The building and its sister block were eventually demolished. Much was written about the unsatisfactory way in which newly designed panel construction fixings are performed in practice. In 1984 the then-conservative government deregulated the process of building control but failed to ensure the construction code was rigorously monitored and enforced thereafter. In 2009, a serious fire at Lakanal House in London’s Clerkenwell area claimed several lives; many of the recommendations of the subsequent enquiry were never implemented.

Grenfell TowerThe 2016 Farmer Review ‘Modernise or Die’ should have provided a warning that the organisation of the construction sector itself was in serious disarray and far too reliant on a business-as-usual model. For many years there have been concerns about the industry skillset, about inappropriate substitution of construction components with others not matching the required specification, and of workmanship simply skimped or components and processes omitted altogether. These are far from uniquely UK issues for similar concerns have been expressed in many other jurisdictions. But equally general has been the slow pace of putting things right or changing the ways of working.

The pace of technological and regulatory change is also an increasingly tough call for designers, system manufacturers, constructors, and project managers. They face challenging requirements of thermal insulation, whole-life energy conservation, and other sustainability targets as well as contending with evolving working practices, procurement, materials innovation, and more demanding versatility criteria. These factors of course apply to refurbishments just as they do to new builds. Most importantly some of the critical theoretical assumptions about the performance of buildings either cannot be trusted because the relevant industry sector is doing its assessment, or cannot be relied on in practice or over time because the scope of testing is too limited; whether this is because testing parameters for interactive ‘what if’ considerations are too narrowly drawn to foreshorten design to production timeframes and reduce financial exposure or the combined effects of weathering, biodegradation and climate change coupled with indifferent or ineffective building maintenance is most in question is unclear. But they serve to compound thinly risk-assessed processes and a pervasive lack of professional curiosity seems to be a common hallmark.


In my building pathology role, I always have to remind myself that good and robust construction is predictable and consistent; defects and failures are nearly always much more random. Both in the UK and internationally there are issues with the fragmentation of design and construction practices which often obstruct optimisation of outcomes; each subsector has its parameters in place and ensuring that these form a seamless entity is an increasing challenge.

Building Safety Post-Grenfell

My work in the House of Lords tells me that in responding to major building catastrophes, especially those involving significant loss of life, municipalities, and central government are themselves often ill-equipped to take the necessary action. There is intense pressure to be seen to be reacting appropriately and to manage the political, reputational, legal and financial risks. The theoretical performance of components and construction methods furthermore, are not helped by inconsistent assessment procedures. One particular feature that came out of our own government’s handling of the post-Grenfell situation is how departmental efforts at damage limitation frequently failed to understand the risk sensitivities in the wider market; so for instance a government advice note caused a significant and adverse reaction in financial (especially lending and insurance) circles.

Another area of difficulty was a focus on critical life safety fire risks (in other words physical safety of building occupants) when the insurance market was primarily focused on risks to the building itself. My point was and remains, that if in the round you have a robustly designed and constructed building, you protect both the building and occupants over extended timeframes. On this basis questions about whether in the event of a fire there should be an ‘evacuate’ or alternatively, a ‘stay put’ instruction top occupants, become less critical in risk analysis terms.

One resultant problem currently playing out within the UK is that the level of remediation satisfying the minimum requirements of the British Standard (PAS 9980) – which itself could be tightened in the future – is nevertheless not considered adequate to attract normal competitive building insurance rates. The resultant hike in annual premiums is an unwelcome cost against which residents naturally take issue especially as this causes them to pay indirectly for defects in the original construction for which they had no responsibility, nor knowledge at the time of taking up occupation or acquisition and often without effective agency to remediate at reasonable cost or at all.

Parliamentarians are for the most part, not experts but at best ‘competent generalists’. Understanding materials science, the practicalities of construction, the legal and financial implications (including insurance and professional risks), and the ongoing maintenance and management impacts for predictable performance in the long term, would challenge even senior construction experts. As a result, the most relevant questions are sometimes never asked.

Compound this with the administrative phenomenon of ‘silo thinking’ and not only does professional curiosity suffer but clear demarcation lines and no-go areas appear; insistence on avoiding overlapping of different departmental functions may also result in gaps in which nobody exercises the necessary supervision.

Buildings as everyone knows, require maintenance, and designing systems so that they can readily be maintained and serviced at moderate cost, is key to ensuring longevity and design performance. Predictability is also important so that planned maintenance can be achieved and unplanned sudden large remediation costs avoided. Many projects are still being completed without due regard to long-term maintenance and practicalities of management, especially of external items exposed to the weather, atmospheric pollution, and so on. If residential occupiers are liable to pay service charges to cover costs of maintaining systems that in terms of performance in use, are over complicated, degrade over a relatively short period, or are fiddly, non-standard, or difficult to source items, these themselves create cost, discord and are liable to be neglected as ‘too difficult’ with resultant much larger risks to building durability and performance.

Developments cannot be judged by external appearance alone, superficially attractive that may be. External wall and glazing systems take just one aspect and, therefore do not sit in isolation but need to be considered as an interactive part of a dynamic whole in which weather protection, thermal performance, ventilation, and architectural appearance also need to knit with the hidden but even more critical life safety issues of compartmentation, fire stopping, suppression and security systems. They need to do so in ways that are intuitive in terms of use and maintenance so that they match the norms of human behaviour and comprehension. And of course, everyone from design and construction professionals through to government departments and even parliamentarians, need to be able to understand how all this fits together. The best and most worthy prizewinning projects seek to address all these and more but for all too many others, it remains a cost cutting race to the bottom in terms of quality in depth.

My solution to the UK building safety problem is to place strict liability on developers and principal contractors for the quality and competence of what they have already built; to the extent they have gone out of business, to apply a levy on the wider industry of designers, component manufacturers, contract supervisors and warranty providers to fund remediation. The problem doesn’t go away just because constructors think they are too big to touch. Governments have choices – either to fix liability on those responsible and who can pay, or to allow the economic uncertainties of letting costs fall randomly on the innocent – in other words capriciously, unmanaged, and in residential property market terms, with unpredictably corrosive outcomes. So far, I have been unsuccessful in establishing this in UK law but going forward, this on its own would revolutionise construction quality, particularly in the housing sector. After all, what is it about building construction that makes it immune to the normal rules of consumer protection?

For specialist providers of cladding and glazing systems, fitout, and second fix services, there is a cautionary note to be sounded; consumer demand to do better is increasing whether from residents, office tenants, and investors. Who retains overall responsibility for fire safety in particular will become ever more important. During the passage of the Building Safety Act 2022, I was approached by representatives of internal partitioning contractors. They were fearful that the principal contractors and developers would simply seek to pass on to them the liability for the integrity of internal compartmentation for the building as a whole.

On further examination however, it became apparent that these specialist contractors had no hand in the fire safety philosophy of the building as a whole, were not briefed in that regard, and simply followed their interpretation of a specification provided by others. Moreover, they were often given very little lead in time and when given the go-ahead were expected to be on-site in a matter of days and their work completed in the shortest possible time. I was told that frequently they were largely unsupervised once on site.

Such arrangements should sound warning bells but it is why I believe that only by establishing strict statutory liability and independent inspection regimes will those company directors and their advisors for whom cost-cutting and profit margins are paramount, change their working habits to a more consumer-focussed culture.

In the UK we are taking steps in this direction but it is still leaving innocent residents in high-risk buildings and faced with unsustainable costs which create a cost-of-living crisis for many, and a largely unreformed construction sector.

But there is one other potential legacy area and that is in general consumer education; to achieve this there needs to be greater transparency of processes and responsibilities. Knowing how a modern home functions and in terms of multi occupancy residential buildings, understanding the relationship is between the block control and management as compared with the unit use and occupation, remains critical. It includes occupier responsibility for not misusing or maltreating the building, for avoiding activities not conducive to the common benefit; it means a less insular approach to home ownership in jurisdictions where the owner-occupation market is an important economic driver. In this endeavour, everyone has a role to play.

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