On the morning of 14 June 2017, the fire industry and the construction sector were changed forever by the events at Grenfell Tower, and their repercussions are still being felt today. Public trust in construction engineers and experts was impaired as evidence emerged that certain individuals had not only known the cladding was dangerous but also ignored the fact. The question now is how we can rebuild public trust and confidence in the building professionals of Britain.
I don’t limit myself to cladding manufacturers and installers because, although the cladding was found to be the main cause for the rapid spread of the fire, with the fire systems and construction of the building not being directly to blame, trust in the entire sector was damaged by the public perception that corners had been cut and problems ignored. The fact is that the average layperson does not differentiate between a cladding supplier, a fire engineer or a building surveyor. We’re all in this together and we need to work together to come back from it.
Back in 2017, I was an independent specialist and expert witness for the roofing and cladding sectors. Since forming MAF Associates in 2010, I had made a decent living, but it was all fairly routine stuff, such as insurance assessments, the settlement of disputes between roofing firms and end clients, and safety checks on new cladding installations. I enjoyed my job and envisaged a relatively quiet run to retirement sometime in the 2020s. As I sit and write this, MAF Associates is a thriving business with 15 employees, and it’s a simple fact that much of that growth has resulted from the repercussions of Grenfell.
An urgent need for reassurance
The first and most immediate consequence of Grenfell was uncertainty and an element of fear. Anyone who lived in a building with cladding was nervous and looking for reassurance. Demand for the services of professionals like myself reached unprecedented levels as building users, and residential occupants in particular, demanded answers. The simple fact is that there was no rapid solution available if defective cladding was identified. All we could do in those early months, except in the most exceptional cases, was recommend a Waking Watch and wait for the government to announce the next steps.
Demand for my own services became so high that I realised I could no longer manage the workload on my own and I started to look for support, recruiting office staff and beginning a search for chartered engineers, risk assessors and fire safety advisors to provide a single point of expertise for the rapidly evolving marketplace. I realised that reputation and trust were going to be vital and I believed that I could play a part in the process of resolving the crisis and restoring faith in professionals. I still do.
Once it became clear that a permanent fix would not happen quickly, the focus turned to identifying the at-risk buildings and getting measures in place to make things as safe as possible for the short to medium term. This included recommendations such as extensions to fire systems, Waking Watch, or relatively quick-win, short-term solutions, such as temporary wireless systems covering either whole buildings, or supplementing existing systems with sensors and sounders in the apartments themselves, where many buildings had previously had no fire devices at all.
Every building is different and not every at-risk building is covered entirely in cladding. With many more modern buildings the cladding is mixed in with different materials, such as timber and brick, so we needed to identify the affected areas and suggest potential remedies, both short- and long-term. Another consequence was that wooden cladding also came into the spotlight, even though it was not a factor at Grenfell.
Looking to the future
The irony of the past four years is that, although professionals have taken much of the blame for the mistakes made at Grenfell, the public and building owners have also relied on them to analyse each individual building and help find a solution. As a professional myself, my own opinion was, and remains, that the best way to restore trust is to get the job done and do it well.
I have heard it said that cladding is the biggest challenge to face building surveyors and engineers since asbestos, and although the two things are very different, there are parallels. Whereas asbestos was a proven fire retardant with a deadly side effect, the question with cladding is whether it is flammable or not. It’s not just about the type of cladding either, it’s whether it has been installed correctly, the type of building it has been attached to, the method of installation. The list goes on.
Until December 2018, the use of flammable cladding was actually perfectly permissible in high- and low-rise buildings, provided that a BR135 assessment could confirm it was compliant with BS8414. This seems crazy now, and it also means that many defective panels were actually perfectly legal at the time they were installed. Legal or not, this does nothing to protect the specifiers from the public wrath as, in retrospect, it seems like mindless stupidity.
Since December 2018, an amendment to Building Regulation 7 has specifically forbidden the use of flammable cladding in high-rise residential buildings in England, with similar measures following in Scotland and Wales. This has effectively banned all materials that fall short of the Euroclass A2-s1, d0 standard in the external walls of buildings over 18m that contain a dwelling, institution or room for residential purposes.
Additional measures, such as the new BS6829 protocols for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of evacuation alert systems are also helping to restore public faith in the safety and specification of Britain’s buildings, but we’re still a long way from the end for the post-Grenfell controversy.
As cladding is designed to conceal and protect buildings, investigation is not always simple. If you can find an audit trail, it helps, but in most cases intrusive surveys will be essential to confirm the composition, quality and completeness of the cladding system and installation.
A standard survey is likely to involve a facade cladding engineer and contractor on site, with a fire engineer often present and further input needed from a testing laboratory. Samples from multiple locations in the building should be taken to ensure the cladding matches the specifications.
With some professional indemnity insurance providers imposing caps to limit their exposure to cladding and fire safety claims, the direct appointment of these specialists is recommended, rather than appointment as sub-consultants. The scope and expected outcomes of the investigation must be clearly defined in advance in order to ensure a verifiable and reliable outcome.
It is very important to determine that cladding installations were legal when they were installed, as this could have far-reaching implications beyond the immediate need to ascertain if the building is safe. In most cases, the systems were fully compliant when installed, even if they are now considered high risk, but it’s also important to consider factors such as the effect of the cladding on the wider structure of the building. For example, the Grenfell cladding allowed the flames to move across the skin of the building, thereby nullifying the pre-existing compartmentation measures between each flat.
Rebuilding trust in buildings
I have built my business around the belief that properly trained and experienced surveyors and engineers can contribute positively to the resolution of the post-Grenfell crisis by planning the process, coordinating thorough investigations and recommending the most effective remedial works, both short- and long-term. There are challenges to overcome, both physical and mental, with some elements, such as government policy, out of our control, but with hard work and professionalism we can rebuild the reputation of our industry and keep the nation safe into the future.
For more information, go to www.mafassociates.co.uk