Building a safer future – Learning lessons from Grenfell to deliver safer buildings

Today our director Barbara Marino attended the webinar “Building a safer future – Learning lessons from Grenfell to deliver safer buildings”. The webinar hosted by Barbour and moderated by Heather Beach of The Healthy Work Company, offered the unique opportunity to participate to an interview with Dame Judith Hackitt describing her findings from and answer questions about the independent review she chaired following the Grenfell Tower fire.

The webinar was structured in two parts. The first one consisted in an overview of the findings of the final report issued in May concluding the independent enquiry. The second one was a Q&A session where Dame Hackitt welcomed the opportunity to clarify some of the points of the report which have been quite prominent in the press lately.


The independent review focused on assessing the existing regulatory system for building safety and fire safety. The current guidance is prescriptive however, building regulations approved documents are not regulations per se, and this is where the confusion is amongst the industry duty holders. In addition to this, the current guidance is siloed and sometimes contradictory.

Dame Hackitt’s experience was developed within the chemical industry and some of her observations are the result of the comparison between this industry and the construction sector. Change management, for example, is very disciplined and controlled in the chemical industry but so much in construction where design details get worked out much later in the process which is also poorly documented. In construction, experts/professional are consulted but they are not listened to. Examples include the fire services where it is a statutory obligation to consult them but there is no requirement to take into account what they request. The same applies to residents.

The problem, says Dame Hackitt, is in part down to the culture of the construction industry with the addition that the regulator is not being effective in enforcing the standards which already exist.

The report calls for a complete and systematic revision of the regulatory framework with a new and much stronger package of measures and stronger enforcement with the introduction of the Joint Competent Authority (JCA).

The point is that from now on we must only allow buildings to be built when they are safe to be occupied. This is translated into a series of gateway reviews together with the creation of a Safety case which will be reviewed throughout the life of the building.

We need to have a better system to ensure who is responsible for what, currently it is all too easy to finger point, we need to know who is responsible, this is why the review calls for a clearly nominated and identified duty holder.

The fundamental change recommended by the review is a complete overhaul of the overall package of guidance which, at the moment, is very much written for the use by experts.

The current guidance is also complemented by other documents written by other professionals, adding too much weight to the so-called guidance which makes it a very difficult system for anyone to navigate.

Simpler and clearer but much more rigorous requirements need to be in place. These standards need to be set by the regulator and endorsed by the government.

Dame Hackitt’s review also calls for an increased level of competence throughout the construction sector. Where people are not familiar with most current standards, they need to be properly supervised.

In term of testing of systems and materials, we need to get away from the creeping process of desktop studies, people assume equivalence on these reviews without proper testing. Testing regimes need to be reviewed and updated so that products which used to be suitable but no longer are under current standards, are identified and suitable measures are put in place to ensure buildings are safe. The industry is moving at such a pace that the regimes need to reflect this progress and move forward.

Role of Residents

Residents need to have means of raising their concerns, and to be involved in the process. To underpin all of this, anyone part of a construction project needs to have means to report dangerous occurrences to the regulatory body.

To summarise the report by Dame Hackitt:

Need for a new system, clear accountabilty and responsivility at its heart;
Permission will be required to keep the buildings occupied duiring the life of the building (the Safety case);
There needs to be an approach where the penalties are a true deterrent for those who fail to comply
Try to develop a system which incentives those who want to be proactive and have the safety of buildings as their main interest.

This is not a leap into the unknown, when we all celebrated the Olympic success, that was a measure of the way in which the construction industry had changed its overall approach regarding its employees as being important and their safety had to be ensured not matter how complex the project was. Now we are going through the same cycle but looking at the safety of buildings and of their residents.

People know what is coming so there is no excuse for the industry to wait to change their behaviours, the message to the construction industry is “don’t wait for the any new regulation, change your culture now”.

Dame Hackitt was keen to point out that her review started at the beginning of a process triggered by the Grenfell Tower fire. However, other activities are taking place which need to be considered as well. Dame Hackitt is also committed to go back to the findings of her report and take stock following the public enquiry as a part of continuing to listen and learn to what has come out of this and of any other work.

The question and answer session was very extremely useful and evolved around the following themes:

1. Balance between enforcement and legislation: the current guidance is goal-setting however, it underpins a massive set of approved documents. This is difficult to understand by the professionals and to enforce by the regulator. Penalties should be commensurate to those of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act and those of the CDM regs.

2. Safety case: can this be extended to buildings other than high rise residential with more than 10 storey? While the report is very much aimed at ensuring a proper safety case approach to the buildings, a pragmatic approach had to be taken for the existing portfolio and ensuring that the review of safety cases for existing buildings was proportionate to the realistic resources of the JCA. A lower threshold can be applied in the future but a starting point had to be drawn. The safety case regime will follow very much the major hazards regulatory process and it will be recovered through the duty holders, very likely the building management organisations.

3. Approved inspectors: the report clearly identifies a conflict of interest in using approved inspectors particularly when they are engaged in an advisory capacity. The approved inspector cannot advise and regulate at the same time, if the inspectors act as regulators they must work for the regulator.

4. Competence, the challenge is for the industry to develop coherent competency schemes. Sometimes there are too many bodies which seem to be set up in competition against each other.

5. Combustable materials: Dame Hackitt was asked why the review fell short of banning combustable materials for cladding. The response required going back to the original remit of the review which was to look at buildings as “systems” and not focusing on the individual components. And, in any case, the materials used in the tower shouldn’t have been used in the first place even with the current guidance.

6. The JCA: can the JCA cope with the workload as result of the new regulatory regime and the related safety cases? This will be planned over a number of years, phased over existing buildings. Fortunately, because of the surveys and testing carried out over the last twelve months, there is already a great deal of intelligence of which buildings will need prioritise as part of the assessment. This intelligence can also inform the interventions required for those buildings which are coming up for refurbishment/improvement. It is envisaged that it will take the JCA between 3 and 5 years to set the system up and go through the various safety cases. When the JCA will be in place? This will be subject to government process but hopefully soon.

7. CDM 2015: why didn’t the implementation of the CDM regs help this time in preventing the tragedy? We have two parallel sets of legislation, CDM 15 regs are focused on the safety during construction and safety of the people involved in the construction process.The new regulations, which need to be consistent in approach and terminology with the CDM regs, will need to look at the fact the building is built safely to be occupied (even if it is not a workplace). How do we get the buy in from the designers? Essentially there is not an “opt out” situation, the new system will state clearly that the safety case is reviewed by the JCA at planning, before construction and before occupation.

8. Systems we can learn from: the review found that internationally there is not an overall better system we can take inspiration from and looked at in its entirety. There are good ideas but the review calls for better international dialogue and discussion. It is very clear that everybody is worried about this problem.

9. Distinction between fire prevention/control measures in common parts and individual residences. The new regulatory system will aim at principles rather than having these strange barriers that exist between common parts which are subject to one set of regulations and parts of the building which are regarded as individual residences.

Overall, a very insightful session which provided considerable clarity. We just need to wait for the government to enact on the recommendations from the report and the outcomes from other initiatives including the public enquiry and the consultation into the use of combustable materials on cladding.