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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Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees

Roger Deakin’s article in this weeks Guardian Review starts off with one of the best illustrations of biophilia and connection with nature I have read in a while …

I wonder if the swallows that nest in the chimney of my Suffolk farmhouse have the faintest idea how profoundly they affect my emotions. When they first arrive from the south in spring, and I hear the thrumming of their wingbeats amplified to a boom by the hollow brickwork, my heart leaps. They seem to bless the house with the spirit of the south; the promise of summer. Swallows have such a strong homing instinct that it is quite possible this same family of birds, by now an ancient dynasty, has been returning here to nest for the 450 summers since the chimney was built.

When the household swallows fly away to Africa, I get restless. I suppose I envy them. I certainly miss standing by the fireplace at night, eavesdropping on their dormitory conversations in the mud nests above. Swallows never fail to stir the nomad in me, too.

Do read the rest of the article Follow the swallows: Roger Deakin’s days hitchhiking to the sun, it is a great read, a rights of passage of schoolboy french, heading south, hitchhiking delights of the 2CV or Citroen DS, the goddess of the French road. It rekindles in me my my own memories of hitch hiking down through France, sleeping on Corsican beaches, grape picking and climbing around the Mediterranean.

1344371Roger Deakin is one of our great nature writers (and ‘an icon’ of the environmentalist movement) and I would certainly recommend Wildwood, A Journey through Trees, not least for the description of a living building – his home at Walnut Tree Farm, … “evolved rather than designed … riding the earths constant movement … The proportions of each room and of the house as a whole were predicated on the natural proportions of the trees available”

(Enabling) Sharership is the new Leadership

17062008118“Sharership is the new Leadership” Sylvie Sasaki Property Plan A project manager at Marks and Spencer blogging today in Building reminded me this great comment from Jim McLelland @SustMeme), illustrating how social media has progressed to a powerful medium for sharing valuable information  Something not fully recognised or acknowledge by many construction organisation leaders.

Indeed what is key for leadership is to ‘enable‘ sharing through social media, yet many leaders don’t encourage, even actively discourage the use of social media, presenting a negative rather than positive role model. And this presents problems for a digital construction future. I  still hold by comments I made in the Guardian Sustainable Business pages back in 2012:

The biggest barrier to social media take up lies at board and director levels. Most staff within construction organisations will use social media in some personal capacity, a skill and resource to be harnessed for organisational good.

The first and perhaps the most dynamic step an organisation can therefore take in embracing social media and in preparing for Building Information Management, is to ensure that construction directors and boards understand the benefits that managed social media strategies can bring, and enable real open sharing and collaboration.

Sylvie Sasaki Property is right to warn against online networks becoming silos. Yet we can see an emergence of a new connected construction generation, connected in real-time across organisations, sectors and countries, indeed across existing silos, often under the umbrella of hashtags, forming digital communities of practice.

These groupings of sharing conversations, with focus on sustainability, building information management and collaborative working, with participants that are both generous and expert. Helping others long before and after help is needed and in one or more areas that others value and acknowledge. A prime example is the #UKBIMCrew digital community

And all this represents additional pressure on leaders, and on the importance of having robust social media strategies and protocols in place for staff.  Indeed the rise of social media has led to a communications shift in the way construction shares information and participates in conversations. Now based on engagement, relationships and trust, replacing the historical construction approaches of competitiveness, and fear of sharing.

Please do get in touch: Knowing where to start with social media as a construction director or leader can be confusing, but we can provide a no nonsense introduction and strategic approach.  This topic is explored further in my article to be published in Construction Innovation: Information, Process, Management later this year.

Where Greendeal should be …

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At many of the Green Deal workshops, roundtable discussions and presentations (eg More than Just a GreenDeal) I have led over the last year or so , I have challenged thinking with the question, how did we get to 2013 without a clear strategy in improving the efficiency of our existing buildings?

Its as though we waited for Green Deal then set about finding solutions. I know there has been masses of research and development in this area – but no clear agreed solution or strategy.

Many of the solutions are presenting themselves as technology or renewable solutions, rather than behavioural approaches. Have we put energy consumption behavioural science in the ‘too difficult’ or ‘not enough profit’  box?  The hottest new thing in energy efficiency may not be solar panels, wind turbines or eco bling — but computers. ( See Big data analytics and smart meters are allowing utilities to use more renewable power while reducing energy waste)

Encouraging then to see the Guardian Sustainability Business report “The power of behavioural design: looking beyond nudging” describing the powerful integration of big data, behaviour insight and mobile technology in pursuit of reducing energy consumption in homes and buildings.

The American energy software company, Opower, uses a powerful combination of big data and behavioural design to make consumers use less energy

The ambition of the collaborative project between Warwick Business School and Honeywell Building Solutions is to reduce the energy consumption of organisations by applying a combination of relevant technology and behavioural design

And this is just where Green Deal thinking needs to be thinking, on a hierarchy of behaviour, fabric and renewables – not the other way around as we appear to be at the moment – and quickly.

on public building epc’s

The UK Communities and Local Government government website states

Our buildings are responsible for almost 50 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption and carbon emissions.

October 1st marked the date by which UK public buildings have to display their energy performance for buildings and facilities as an EPC (Energy Performance Certificate). Currently around 18,000 buildings, including town halls, museums, schools and job centres, are being tested.

The Guardian’s Hall of Shame lists a number of very prominent and public buildings that score G ( on the same A (good) to G (bad) as white goods). There is within the article a number of calls for refurbishment of these buildings – many less than 5 years old. So where was / is the sustainable design, construction and facilities management that everyone has claimed to be doing since ‘whenever‘?

a facilities management issue?

I question whether this is a design issue or the running of the building. Case studies indicate that Facilities Managers often lack the up to date eco-knowledge to manage complex building management systems, so manage all buildings ‘the same’.    In addition FM has largely been excluded from the debate, news and leading edge sustainability decision making, (at least publicly as a voice shaping our built environment sustainability future) and here we see the consequences.  (see my post on the UKGBC task group for example)

And the blame?

You can see the FM providers or managers from poor scoring buildings being called into board or chamber meetings or  to explain the low EPC score, and told to ‘do something about it’. After all no one wants to be associated with producing white goods that carry a G rating, so the same with buildings that carry a G rating.

and the costs

To be really meaningful, and easily understood the A – G ratings need to be converted into £ of wasted energy per building or per m2 for each building, to demonstrate the real cost to the tax payer of inefficient buildings or facilities.

and keep the focus on ….

It is necessary that focus remains on EPC, change will only come when the public, the building users and environmentalists (and bloggers) kept focus on EPC and displays, as with so many good initiatives this could easily fall away. Maybe the first fine for non display will sharpen minds.