The tragic events unfolding in North Kensington have focussed attention on building design, product specification and construction like never before, as horror and anger replaces the initial shock. Whilst the authorities and media try to get to the bottom of what caused the disaster at Grenfell Tower, suspicion turns to the type of materials used in the recent refurbishment project completed in 2016, and the way they were applied. The extent to which they contributed to the scale of the disaster will become clear in the coming weeks and months, but it is already evident that the BRE, amongst others, had previously raised concerns about the cladding.
Having worked with many building product manufacturers over the last 20 years at the premium end of the market, what’s clear is that factors such as safety, security, energy efficiency and lots of other quality and performance benefits are often an incredibly tough sell. Excellent products are available and ready to use, be it fire-resistant glass, fire doors, sprinkler systems, etc. Budgetary pressures and the desire to avoid over-specification are undoubted challenges for clients, designers and contractors, but as incidents like Grenfell Tower appear to show, getting the specification wrong or failing to fully understand the implications of choosing a certain product or combination, is simply catastrophic.
In writing this blog post, we’re not in any way overlooking the scale of the horrendous human tragedy. It just feels right to talk about the way products and marketed to specifiers, as much as who made the wrong decisions and why, or how our Building Regulations need to change.
Everyone involved in sales and marketing of building products faces a challenge, and has a responsibility, to communicate the benefits of a given product or service, in a transparent way and with integrity. We all know how easy it is to be cynical of a sales pitch, because we have it in our daily lives. Mobile phones are a good example – how many of us really need an edge-to-edge display screen or a 10nm processor to make our lives better? We take benefits like this with a pinch of salt, usually, and they are extremely trivial matters. But is there a danger that this mindset could be infecting our professional roles? ‘Value engineering’ is a phrase that the general public is hearing for the first time, but can it go too far? See events like Grenfell Tower, and believe some of the speculation at this stage, and it’s hard not to think that it can. Worse still, could it turn out to be a blatant case of penny-pinching?
For everyone’s sake, let’s hope the public enquiry finds the answers and helps us map out the way forward when it comes to building safety – getting the right minimum standards in place, properly legislating for accountability right along the supply chain and preventing disasters like this ever happening again.