Grenfell Tower – Cladding Specifications and Regulations Central to Investigations

(I wrote this before the Newsnight programme last night which raised some disturbing issues about the process for approving building products like cladding. I'm sure we will come back to this).

The latest developments in the aftermath of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in west London have focused on checking other high-rise buildings to identify any use of similar cladding panels which may have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

There is still little clarity on what may turn out to be a key issue; whether these panels were “allowed” to be used on tall buildings in particular. There have been assertions that they were not allowed under fire regulations; others, including the manufacturers, say that they were (and are) approved.

Panels that have been tested from other buildings since the event have all failed, but that just raises more questions about how on earth these regulations were policed. It is hard to imagine that the manufacturers and construction firms who installed them knew they weren't approved. So it may be that this comes down to interpretation of less-than-clear language in the regulations, which will be bad news for everyone except the lawyers, who will no doubt debate this endlessly in court.

Meanwhile, Camden council says that similar cladding on their tower blocks, installed by the same firms that were involved at Grenfell, was not as they specified. According to the Telegraph, the council leader said the “panels that were fitted were not to the standard that we had commissioned. In light of this, we will be informing the contractor that we will be taking urgent legal advice”.

But the firm said that the works “were as described in the contractual specification and approved in the usual process for construction and building control by the London Borough of Camden.”  Clearly, we are going to see specification, contract and assurance documentation examined closely during the coming weeks and months.

Meanwhile, our article last week on the fire drew some pertinent comments from readers; they are well worth a look. IanR talked about cost pressures on local authorities; “a culture has emerged where opportunities to remove cost or quality (whilst remaining legally compliant) are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, whilst keeping fingers crossed that that will be good enough”.

Dan picked up on the specification issue; “we all know how the issue of specifications work – the surveyors who officially write the specification don’t know enough about the cladding industry to do this, so they approach their friendly neighbourhood cladding company who informally gives them a specification for their particular brand of cladding. Procurement regulations are satisfied by using the magic words “or equivalent” after it, but no equivalent will ever be offered by the company that buys and installs the cladding”.

Paul Ireland (from IIAPS) picked up on the cost / quality trade-off. “For the majority of clients sourcing on a one-off basis, the pursuit of the lowest cost solution may be appropriate. However, as construction is not a core/internal capability, the development of the detailed specification is supported by external experts and the adherence to standards and regulation should guarantee a minimum quality and guard against such tragic events. For this project, a high-rise residential property, the pursuit of the lowest cost solution is inappropriate. The investigations and inquiry will put the entire procurement and sourcing process under extreme scrutiny, but the use of the lowest-cost cladding elements that provide the lowest fire protection is quite rightly a key focus”.

Our thanks to those commentators, and we would like to hear more from readers who have some expertise in construction in particular. In the meantime, no doubt there will be more about specifications, public procurement and construction supply chains in the national media; all (unfortunately) in this desperately sad context.

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