Grenfell Tower, a UK public housing project that caught fire recently, was a true disaster that is most likely directly attributable to incompatible design specifications and implementation by established architecture, engineering and construction professionals.  I’ve been holding off publishing much about the event until there is more consensus from the forensic experts regarding root cause, but I felt this was worth sharing in the meantime.

Peter Murray, writing for Archinect, offered his take following a talk by the CEO of a UK housing developer discussing the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster. Specifically, Murray focuses on the UK (and, it should be noted, US) practice of relying on subcontractors to transfer away risk. The title of his article: “The return of the master builder?”

In the coming months and years there will be numerous inquiries into the cause of the fire and its effect. There will be investigations to ascertain blame – corporate, personal and institutional. All to ensure that nothing similar happens again. While the results of forensic analysis and judicial process will potentially take years to publish, it is appropriate that attention is paid to key concerns that have emerged in the immediate aftermath. The testing of cladding materials and their context is the most publicised of these, but the issues highlighted by Vlessing have subsequently been picked up by many professionals and by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The institute’s recent statement points out that current building procurement methods mean that the lead designer (architect or engineer) is frequently not responsible throughout the project for the design and the specification of materials or the inspection of their installation. The RIBA also commented on the disappearance of the clerk of works who would traditionally inspect the work of contractors and report non-compliance to the client.

Architects have argued for some time that not having the authority to insist on specific products being used in design build contracts allows contractors to change specifications to cheaper materials, without understanding the knock-on effect. In some cases architects are discouraged from going to site, but when they do manage to influence the process they are often seen as adding cost. Which of course is frequently the case if they are stopping the contractor from using the less expensive and possibly inappropriate spec.

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As the construction industry discusses the aftermath of Grenfell and the changes that need to take place in the procurement of buildings it should ensure that there is greater consistency of quality control throughout the process. In the era of BIM, VR, MMC and an industry that is committed to collaboration, perhaps we should look again at the master builder role that Fosters carried out in Hong Kong. The idea of the architect as master builder was described by Paul Morrell when he was Government Construction Advisor as a’role that many still romantically profess an ambition for’. But however romantic it may be and whether it is an architect or other professional, the industry which has discussed collaboration for so long but has ended up with buck passing, needs a new mechanism for delivering a fully integrated end product.