Grenfell - Who makes sure a building is fireproof?

The Role of the Architect

The Grenfell enquiry has been examining the architect’s role and has found it much less than the origin of the word ‘architect’ would imply. This reduction in an architect’s control over a project started perhaps as a spinoff of from the increasing use of design and build contracts. In this form of procurement, it is now common for the designers to start the project as consultants commissioned by the employers, only to be replaced or novated when a contractor is appointed. More recently the rise of consultant project managers has further confused the traditional roles within design teams.

This appears to be being brought into focus in the Grenfell enquiry’s hunt for any member of the project team who will accept design responsibility. What is shown by the enquiry, is that few outside construction understand how little authority may be given to registered professionals and the lack of regulation to ensure competence at all levels in a building project.

The Role of the Design and Build Contractor

Typically, in a design and build contract, a main contractor undertakes to design, supply and build and then subcontracts all. When fault is found in the works, the contractor rejects all blame, as it had not in fact designed or built anything, asserting that fault must lie with the consultants and contractors to whom it subcontracted the work. The designers, being subcontracted to the main contractor, do not control the overall design development or what is built. Much of the design is left to the invention of sub-contractors and tradesmen as work progresses. Even building regulations inspections can be sub-contracted to private companies.

Design Coordination

Successful teamwork is engendered by good planning and management with clearly allocated responsibilities and effective communication. Empowering designers and tradesmen to work well as a team requires leadership, organization, proper funding and timely payments. Designs should be adequately prepared in advance and developed in work as required. Continuity in the design team leadership from inception to completion helps ensure the technical execution of the concept is carried through effectively and developed to benefit from the input of specialists.

Independent Audits

The Grenfell enquiry emphasis the wisdom of the once normal practice of independently verifying the suitability of the materials and components proposed for the works. For example, relying on a statement that a product has a fire certificate ensures nothing. Checking the fire certificates is simple and allows the relevance of the fire tests to the proposed design to be verified. Something which, if it was done, the Grenfell enquiry appears not yet to have found.