The Grenfell Tower: Regulation, roles and responsibility

Preliminary findings from the Grenfell Tower Interim Report discuss six major areas for improvement in fire safety

On June 14, 2017, London reeled from the massive Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people, mostly modest income tenants. The fire was fanned by elevated winds and accelerated by the exterior cladding, a combination of an aluminum composite and polyethylene foam insulation that has also been found on nearly 200 high-rise structures throughout the United Kingdom.

Following a similar high-rise fire at the Lakanal House in London that killed six tenants in 2009, the UK passed regulations in part requiring sprinklers, standpipes and alarm systems in all new high-rise construction. Known as the Building Regulations 2010, these changes were ambiguous at best on any retrofits and could also be waived by local governments acting as the Authority Having Jurisdiction.

Immediately after the Grenfell fire, several investigations were started. In addition to the ongoing police investigation, and the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that in part will look into the issue of civil liability, on July 28, 2017, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Home Secretary called for an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety with an emphasis on high-rise, high-risk residential structures, and appointed Dame Judith Hackitt as the chair of this committee.

A firefighter puts his hand to his face as he looks at the floral tributes before a minute's silence near to Grenfell Tower.
A firefighter puts his hand to his face as he looks at the floral tributes before a minute's silence near to Grenfell Tower. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

Dame Judith is a chemical engineer who worked for 15 years at Exxon Chemicals and held executive positions within the Chemical Industries Association. She later became the Chair of Britain’s Health and Safety Executive, and is a Fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Chemical Engineers, of which she was President from 2013 to 2014. She seems eminently qualified and dedicated for guiding the work of this committee.

On Dec. 18, 2017, the Independent Review published an interim report of their findings with the direction they will take in order to provide some final recommendations on building and fire regulations. The Interim Report in itself is very frank and discusses six major areas for improvement:

  • Regulations and Guidance
  • Roles and Responsibilities
  • Competence
  • Process, Compliance and Enforcement
  • Resident’s Voice and Concerns
  • Quality Assurance and Products

While organizations such as the Institution of Fire Engineers have been a part of this review from the beginning, Dame Judith personally appealed to members of groups such as the IFE who are not on the review committee to freely raise additional questions and make recommendations so that the final report will have a broader input from the fire and life safety community.

The findings of the Interim Report include the following points from these six sections:

1. Regulations and Guidance

The Building Regulations 2010 (BR 2010) were clear about the outcomes to be achieved, but not about who would be responsible for making them happen.

There was and is widespread confusion on what are regulations and what is guidance within the BR 2010, which is not formatted in a user-friendly manner. Fire safety, thermal insulation and noise abatement regulations were all addressed separately in BR 2010, with some requirements negating proposed improvements in the other areas of concern. For example, current regulations focused more on energy efficiency than on matters such as fire and life safety.

2. Roles and Responsibilities

The current culture regarding building and fire standards in the UK reflects owners waiting to be told what to do by regulators, rather than taking responsibility to correct building conditions. This approach is driven by a desire to do the minimum to come into compliance and not necessarily to ensure safety for the lifetime of the building or its tenants.

3. Competence

The competence of those individuals involved in the design, construction and ongoing operational management of complex and high risk buildings is called into question. There is currently no consistent way to assess or verify an individual’s competence.

Any person can hold themselves out as a designer, builder, fire engineer, fire consultant, fire risk assessor or building control inspector without mandatory license or certification.

4. Process, Compliance and Enforcement

Enforcement and sanctions are poor and do not provide an adequate means of compliance assurance, deterrence or redress for non-compliance.

There is an historic failure of the courts to impose robust sanctions (for non-compliance).

There is no requirement in the BR 2010 for existing buildings to be brought up to the latest safety standards, as long as the refurbishment does not make the existing safety provisions worse.

5. Resident’s Voice and Concerns

The means of resident’s concerns to be raised and addressed is unclear and inadequate. The report includes testimony that residents fear eviction for raising building condition issues and reprisal for reporting on the activities of other residents.

6. Quality Assurance and Products

Current methods for testing, certification and marketing of construction products and systems are not clear.

Individual elements being used as part of a more complex system are not being fully tested as a complete system.

Test results, desktop studies and the details of those who produce them are not made public.

The integrity and efficacy of product and system classifications are highly dependent on their correct installation by competent and knowledgeable persons.

Consistency needed in building fire code

Finally, the Interim Report cites the need to look at how other countries conduct both their building and fire regulations, including having stringent standards for both government and private fire and building officials. The recommendation is for those individuals to be formally licensed and accredited before being engaged in critical aspects of high-risk buildings, such as residential high-rise structures.

The report also cites a need for the consistency of (building, fire and life safety) terms and a greater collaboration among government regulators and sharing results of their inspections.

The direction from here is for the Independent Review to hold a summit in early spring to bring together all of the stakeholders in order to confirm these recommendations into a final report. The success of this Review will be based in large part by convincing those stakeholders that the current system of Building and Fire regulations in the UK is broken and must undergo radical change to avoid another conflagration such as the Grenfell Tower.

Only time will tell.

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