Tag Archives: brexit

Grenfell Tower and the precautionary principle.

Many have written, blogged and commented on the avoidable tragedy at Grenfell Tower. I have been in two minds whether to add my voice, but then as a colleague pointed out, I have been blogging on themes pertinent to the tragedy since 2007. Theses themes (on risk, collaborative working, health sustainability, standards, strategies,  and construction improvement) have featured in this and other blogs, in numerous articles across many journals and of course brought together within the recently published FutuREstorative.

No doubt, in boardrooms across the world of built environment organisations, questions are being asked: have we designed, specified or installed similar materials and systems in similar situations. Do we really know? Do we know the materials, chemicals and the impacts of insulation we have installed? Where are the inspection and audit results, where are the material test certificates and evidence of compliance with specifications.

We do not know the exact cause and failures at Grenfell, but what has become clear is that this a systematic failure, a cocktail of failures and certainly not just a single cause.

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Back in my biz improvement / safety advisory role in the 90’s, we used the swiss cheese model for a systematic thinking approach to risk. In the swiss cheese model each slice of cheese is seen as a system activity or aspect layer, holes in individual layer may be problematic but other layers act as a defence to prevent more significant failure.

But when too many holes line up we see a catastrophic system collapse event.  As sadly we have seen at Grenfell Tower.

 

London fire: Screaming people trapped as blaze engulfs 27-storey Grenfell Tower in Notting Hill

Grenfell Tower will undoubtedly have a profound and highly significant impact on design, construction and building management worldwide, but we do not need to wait for an inquiry when we know the problems, the holes in the myriad of swiss cheese layers, and we know what needs to be fixed.

BUILT ENVIRONMENT HOLES IN THE SWISS CHEESE

deregulation and desire to have a legislation bonfire
slow response by government to head lessons learnt
lobbyist pressure to affect change
a fashion for ignoring experts
partial privatisation of the building inspection regime
fragmented supply chain
inappropriate materials or systems
lack of system thinking
a lowest cost mentality that still persists
passive fire strategies
material testing in isolation, not as a system
lack of transparency and impact knowledge of materials we specific, approve, install
ignorance of precautionary principle thinking
lack of collaborative working
failure to question – the “we can only do what the client, architect, contractor specifies’ culture
lack of understanding of building technology (cf uncompleted fire stopping)
inspections (see the Edinburgh Schools Report)
and so many more …

Grenfell should be seen as a warning for the deregulation many would like to see following Brexit. The great repeal bill is set to repeal many of the health and environment EU regulations (those that that ‘hamper uk business’ but will prevent other Grenfells).

Amongst the many causes, it has been suggested the fire may well have started from a faulty appliance. How sadly ironic that it was the perceived EU over-regulations on safe & efficient kettles and vacuums that became a cause-celeb in last years Brexit referendum. (Who are the EU to tell us how safe our kettles and vacuum cleaners should be ….?) See George Monbiot Too often safety has been sacrificed to an agenda of deregulation backed by lobbyists 

6442Moving in from the green fringe of the built environment sector, we have robust standards emerging containing material schedules built on the precautionary principle. (Here we can list the Living Building Challenge, WELL standards along with the Red List, Pharos, Declare and other lists.) Organisations and clients have their own schedules, for example Google’s Portico, British Lands Material Schedule. If such standards and red lists were adopted by the public sector, embedded into building regulations, then the cladding insulation at Grenfell would in all probability not have been permitted.

‘The precautionary principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk’

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking that action. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result. (Wiki)

Lloyd Alter blogging in Treehugger illustrates the impact of the material used in Grenfell. What is sad is that this, to most, has come as a surprise.

What appears to have happened is that the Reynobond’s polyethylene core caught fire and the stack effect in the two-inch gap made it spread almost instantly. Apparently it got hot enough that the supposedly flame-retardant polyiso charred as well, putting out tons of smoke, possibly contributing cyanide and other toxic gases. The vinyl framed windows also melted, letting the toxic fumes into the suites very quickly.

As may be expected from media such as the Daily Mail, the green, carbon reduction, climate change agenda has emerged as a blame. Alice Bell writing in the Guardian(Don’t blame green targets for Grenfell) soundly kicks this into touch

But we do have a problem with many seeing building sustainability as simply being energy & thermal performance. The key message of FutuREstorative was to address the necessary shift in sustainability thinking, away from a blinkered focus on energy to one that embraces human and planetary health within a socially just and ecologically sound sustainability.  And … perhaps we should not use the word sustainability until we do.

Today, it is difficult to attend sustainability events where health and wellbeing is not a key theme and message, it is sad that this message is not percolating down through the long tail of construction where lowest cost is still prevalent. Lowest cost even at the high price of social and human life. (A mineral based insulation with a Fire Rating would have cost £2 m2 more than the polyurethane based, more flammable insulation used on Grenfell. It will be interesting to see any records of the value engineering exercise to arrive at this material choice, if indeed there was a recorded VE, and how the decision met the Social Value Act.

Update 30 June BBC Reporting evidence of VE (or cost engineering)

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Time then for all in the built environment sector, the government, lobbyist, clients, designers, contractors and building operators to adopt precautionary principle thinking, particularly when human health hazards have been flagged by coroners reports, data, research and lessons learnt .

This can be voluntarily done now, today.  To wait years for outcomes from an inquiry and the regulation changes that will surely follow, changes that will tell us what we already know, is simply irresponsible.

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Brexit is moving UK from client status into the supply chain

There have been many, and there will be many ‘what Brexit means for …’ articles, blogs and opinions. Here is my take on how I see the impact for the built  environment and sustainability. It is a blog post that I started on June 24th, but with each passing day, hour, a new twist has emerged …

flag_yellow_lowFar from dust settling after the EU Referendum that saw ‘Leave’ gain a slender majority, we are seeing more dust being kicked up from the daily political, financial and environmental developments. What all this means for the built environment, as many organisations are telling me in emails, tweets and statements is unclear and remains to be seen. It is still unbelievable that political and industry organisations and companies did not and still do not really have a plan in the case of an out vote, and what the implications of triggering Article 50 would entail.

What we see however is the UK on the brink of a self inflicted move from client, or framework prime contractor status to supply chain status and all the implications that would bring. No longer would we be setting the trading and governance conditions but having to negotiate, and ultimately comply.

And with the mature supply chain conditions that most in the built environment are now familiar with, this entails, fair, ethical , equitable and environmentally sound practices and governance across an organisation. Practices that are not only limited to the goods or services provided to a client (in this case the EU) but across all operations.

And the pandora’s box of potential implications, a few good but mostly disastrous in the short term, we now face in the built environment include …

A continuation of OJEU – the EU tendering and procurement process. (an Housing Association pre-referendum article foresaw this as a possibility , to ensure open access to contracts as a good ethical and fair trading practice)

Compliance with EU environmental standards, such as air quality and the Near Zero Buildings directive. Although many of the EU environmental issues have, over time been incorporated into e.g. Building Regs, as a government we have fought most EU environmental legislation, particularly air quality regulations. Boris Johnson, described as Trump-Lite in his approach to the environment, has been accused of withholding failing air quality statistics in London schools, hampering any real improvement. Now, to trade with EU it is highly likely that air quality thresholds will be an imposed condition in light of the recent statements from EU officials that they remain committed to protecting health and wellbeing of all European citizens.

Uncertainty and worry questions the free movement of skills, talent and people on which the built environment has thrived. Free movement of skills has been vital for construction on site, in Architectural practices, Environmental consultancies, Universities and other research organisations. Even BIM, which through free movement of IT talent, many of whom based in London and created the innovative IT hub, that has helped us become a BIM world leader. Not surprisingly there are warnings that IT and multi-i organisations will seek more EU centric locations, for example Berlin, relocating away from London and the UK.

Indications are that we will see short and long term price increases in construction materials. 60% of all imported construction materials come from the EU. Exported services will be expected at a lower cost which may prove to be unviable.  Imported timber, increasingly the structural material of choice – will be subject to trade and cost implications This should of course bolster Grown in Britain timber, but that itself may well be subject to wider EU trading implications – as a supply chain would be expected to do so to demonstrate good governance and ecological considerations.

The construction industry is often the barometer for the health of the economy – and hence a prelude for a recession. It requires amongst other factors, strong confidence in a pipeline of work flow. That pipeline had slowed pre referendum, with a number of contracts having Brexit clauses, and now, post referendum in some cases (e.g. infrastructure projects) come to (a temporary) stop. With the value of construction organisations being reduced, so will funds available for innovation, investments in new technologies (digital and BIM) and crucial for the industry, education, training and development.

On a wider macro sustainability level, leaving the EU risks weakening efforts to protect human rights, tackle corruption, environmental destruction and climate change, all which require a collaborative effort with our neighbours. I have already heard “that as FSC is a EU Legislation requirement we can now use unsustainably sourced timber?”

Facing all of these potential implications, never before in the sector have we needed our modern day, mature approaches to improving the built environment. These include lean construction, a diverse and ethical sector, collaboration not silo’d isolation, sound training and development, BIM, and a restorative sustainability approach that is not weakened to doing even less just to reduce the built environments sustainability impact.  

At the same time we need to speed up the incorporation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as the sectors sustainability mission.Chart_of_UN_Sustainable_Development_Goals

Far from taking back control, we may be handing over what control we had as we take a new position within the supply chain. But then … who knows what will occur, if and when and by whom article 50 is ever triggered.

So what now? The Brexit debate has moved from the binary referendum to a complex cocktail of political issues. It is possible we will see a snap election, less likely the called for 2nd referendum, but we will have new leaders of our main parliamentary parties and debates that focus not only the future of the EU but the UK itself. All will have huge impacts for the built environment.

As individuals we have avenues to register our concerns, through social media advocacy, through our institutions and membership organisations, through the call for a 2nd referendum, and as this is now a political issue through MP lobbying.

We should also see a step up in appropriate lobbying from built environment groups – now is not the time to wait and see, now is the time for groups such as RIBA, CIOB, CE, UKGBC, CIBSE, ICE, IEMA etc etc … to mobilise, be proactive and lobby government, potential party leaders and MP’s with responsibilities within the built environment spectrum, to protect our industry and all the wonderful progress made through union with the EU.

This blog is my view of the post referendum uncertainty, an interpretation from experience and knowledge of the sector, but undoubtedly also informed through reading many many articles, blogs and tweets, too many to reference here at the moment, but also worth reading are:

For a US perspective, Lloyd Alter: What impact will Brexit have on green building in Britain?

Understanding Article 50: David Allen Green  This is what sovereignty looks like