COMPLACENCY AND COMPLEXITY BLAMED FOR GRENFELL FIRE - The BESA
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Friday, November 9, 2018

COMPLACENCY AND COMPLEXITY BLAMED FOR GRENFELL FIRE

The BESA Conference 2018 also heard that technical incompetence was likely to blame for the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but the disaster was also a culmination of growing complacency across the fire safety industry.

“Before Grenfell, the number of fires and deaths in fires were in decline. This led to complacency and a race to the bottom on price,” Conor Logan, technical director at Colt International, told the conference. “As it happens, insurance claims were rising, but nobody seemed to spot that.”

He also pointed out that a big part of competence was being able to recognise when you should not be carrying out specialist work, according to Mr Logan.

“We have the crazy situation of fire alarm companies being given contracts to service fire and smoke control systems when they clearly do not have the expertise. Hopefully, one of the outcomes from the Hackitt Review will be an end to that sort of corner cutting,” he said.

Mr Logan was part of an expert ‘Fire Safety Panel’ chaired by BESA chief executive David Frise and co-hosted by the Smoke Control Association.

They told the Conference that fire engineers were rarely involved at the design stage of building services projects so fire safety elements often had to be bolted on after the rest of the m&e works were complete.

Cost
“Fire engineering is often seen as an additional cost not an integral part of the process – and if the team is led by an architect it will not be considered until well into the m&e phase,” said Mark Farmer, CEO of Cast and author of the seminal government-sponsored review of the construction labour market model ‘Modernise or Die’.

“There has been very little change in client behaviour since Grenfell – everything is still driven by lowest cost,” he added. “We need to impose more prescriptive regulations, at least until we sort ourselves out. That is why I would favour a complete ban on combustible cladding, for example, because the current system of regulation is fundamentally flawed and very hard for building control to sign off.”

The current process is also too complex, according to Will Pitt of NG Bailey, who is chair of the BESA Technical Committee.

“Competence is the single biggest issue to emerge from the aftermath of Grenfell, but the whole project process has become so complex that building control officers are signing off things they can’t possibly understand,” he said. “It is unreasonable to expect the MEP contractor to take responsibility for all of this and solve all the technical problems – other specialists need to step up.”

The panel agreed that the current privatised model for building control was flawed as it did not incentivise inspectors to take tough action against developers.

Poor quality specification is also a major problem, according to Roperhurst managing director Bob Lane. “They are often cut and paste exercises carried out by the most junior member of the project team – yet the success of the whole design depends on them,” he explained.

While the panel identified many of the technical problems that led to the Grenfell tragedy, Ian Doncaster from the Smoke Control Association said many of the real issues were “cultural”, which are much harder to change “because you are asking people to change their behaviour”. He said the Hackitt Review had already pointed this out.

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