A Critical Review of the Architectural Profession through the Grenfell Tower tragedy: This month we caught up again with GUNN’s new Senior Project Designer, Ted Thrower. As part of his Level 7 Professional Apprenticeship at the practice, Ted combines practical experience in an Architecture practice, coupled with academic training from a university, in Ted’s case, London Southbank University.  In the challenging academic year 2020/2021, Ted set his sights on his dissertation project and decided to undertake a review of the Architectural profession through the devastating Grenfell Tower tragedy from 2017.

Architectural Profession: Grenfell Tower was part of the Lancaster West Estate, a council housing complex within West London in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The 24-storey tower block was designed in 1967 in the Brutalist style of the era by Clifford Wearden and Associates, and the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council approved its construction in 1970.

On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out in the tower block, causing 72 deaths. More than 70 others were injured and 223 people escaped. It was the deadliest structural fire in the UK since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and the worst UK residential fire since World War II.

The fire was started by a malfunctioning fridge-freezer on the fourth floor. It spread rapidly up the building’s exterior, bringing fire and smoke to all the residential floors. This was due to the building’s cladding, the external insulation, and the air gap between, which enabled a stack effect. The fire burned for about 60 hours before finally being extinguished.

Ted’s dissertation is called ‘A Critical Review of the Architectural Profession through the Grenfell Tower tragedy’ and he talked us through his process and the salient points:

“The dissertation was a way for me to dig deep into the professional world of Architecture, as I’m still on the edge of becoming fully qualified. I wanted to dive in, criticise, and scrutinise this catastrophic tragedy that’s been headline media for four years now. I decided upon Grenfell, because I wanted to understand the background, history, design rationale, professional processes, the government’s link, and those of other consultants, by taking a step-by-step look at the events leading up to the tragedy. I wanted to see what could have been done differently – that’s my ‘Why’.

Dissertation Structure

In the first part of the dissertation, I looked at the original 1970s build and researched the concrete cassette panels, how the panels worked in context with the design rationale, and planning processes at the time. I then looked at the specific submission planning drawings that were submitted by Studio E for the redevelopment of Grenfell in 2012 and further specification information on the recladding. From there I considered issues from the macro to micro scale. In the 1970s, Local Authorities purchased private residential property on a massive scale to expand the stock of social housing and then, soon after, Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right to buy’ scheme. Private Developers seized the opportunity of hiring architects and building as quickly as possible to make money before moving on to the next one. It was interesting to discover that almost 50 years ago, in the 1970s, the Architect’s design wasn’t fully completed in the first place, and insufficient care was given to the building regulations and general design.

On looking at the submission drawings, I selected and highlighted certain drawings to review and, again, I wanted to scrutinize the information on those drawings. Why were things not spotted that should have been spotted, and why was information missing that should have been necessary but that got through the planning process anyway?

The dissertation finished with the post-tragedy effect, following the Hackett Report. The Hackett Report involved a review of the current building regulations, specifically the fire regulations, and recommended immediate revision, ensuring a greater degree of stringency. For example, you can no longer specify any timber or flammable material higher than 18 meters in England (11 meters in Scotland). This was a big deal, because fire regulations do not change frequently.

I used historical texts and theoretical frameworks whilst exploring the chronological order of the 1970s impact, the submission drawings, and the impact from the tragedy to give clarity to the bodies involved in each of the processes. It seemed that so many things were overlooked at the time, not just from central Government, but by Local Authorities and other bodies. They overlooked design queries, community queries, and in my opinion, ethical queries too.

In the 1970s, the A40, by Shepherds Bush, was built, creating a physical division of the Borough between the wealthy and the poor. The area around the Grenfell Tower site was known to be avoided, with its large social-housing tower blocks adding to the intimidation. The A40 escalated this perception of the area and was detrimental to how people lived and work.ed  A lack of funding from central Government to Local Authorities and Building Control highlighted the biggest problems for the role of the architect. Currently, architects have little control in these types of situations; used purely as draftsmen than problem solving ‘master builders’ as the profession was once seen.

A change in the role of the Architect

In my opinion, the role of architects needs to be redefined.  We should have more responsibility in the specification of materials, the material sciences, and be able to test the limits of materials. A change in the services provided by an architect should be a more scientific approach, material science, with investigating and testing of various materials perhaps leading us to find new sustainable and safe alternative materials. An example would be testing materials to organic curves on modular arrangements that are efficient, quick, easy to install, inexpensive and more effective when used in specific applications. This needs research and time into understanding materials, technology, performance and specifications, as opposed to the development process that we currently have.

The architects’ relationships between the government, local authorities, government bodies and clients needs more trust. An architect should be appointed to challenge and push the limits of a project. By giving more responsibility to the role of an architect, it’s possible to ensure that things work in less of a ‘tick box’ exercise, and necessities are dynamically met in response to contextual safety, community, and environmental requirements. This is, after all, what we are taught to do in our university courses. 

We need to seize this new opportunity in the architectural profession.  The seeming uncertainty of government, underfunding of authorities, the need for sustainable design, collaboration and working alongside new regulations; there are many variables that need to be considered in this role as a matter of urgency but, fundamentally, we need to ensure the profession is not further marginalised.

When Grenfell Tower was originally planned, there was a greater masterplan where the site would have operated differently. Architects were used to produce planning drawings that considered the greater community, but with many key decisions now with governing bodies, responsibility is gone, or is left at the bottom of the pile. Current systemic shortcomings can now provide an opportunity, as a profession, to ensure that we become more important in the process.

The 1970s Grenfell Tower required architects to resolve issues, as did the 2012 recladding development that caused the catastrophe. Without change, in 30 years we may be resolving the same issues once again, not just to one tower, but to buildings across the nation. So, we need a different approach. Our role needs to evolve into material sciences for the specification of appropriate materials. It’s so important to make sure that these things don’t happen again. I would like to think we can move forward and learn systemic and professional lessons from the Grenfell Tower disaster and that the role of architects will see a seismic shift very soon.”

Editorial Credit: JessicaGirvan/Shutterstock.com

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 info@gunn-associates.com

Tel: +44 (0) 20 7377 5458

https://gunn-associates.com/

 

 

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