Grenfell disaster raises questions of management and maintenance – not high-rise towers

DCQyiC_XgAECExb

The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower drew parallels with the Ronan Point gas explosion in 1968 which became synonymous with halting the advance of Anglo-Saxon high-rise Modernism. The terrifying speed at which the fire spread has prompted an emergency review of all towers which have undergone similar retrofitting of external insulating panels.

While many are cautious to jump to unresolved conclusions, there are many who also feel this is sympotamic of a longstanding trend of ‘managed decline’ among London’s social housing stock. It is also necessary perhaps to treat this as an opportunity to clarify the standards which our industry currently adheres to with regard to fire safety.

1. The ‘stay-put’ policy

The most common fire strategy for any block of residential flats in the UK is a ‘stay-put’ policy meaning residents who are not directly affected by fire are advised to stay within their flats. This is in part to avoid common stairwells becoming blocked with people escaping the building while fire services move up to attend to the fire. This approach also heavily depends on an effective compartmentalising of individual flats which clearly failed at Grenfell.

2. Sprinklers are not common to most residential buildings

The installation of sprinklers, particularly retrospectively, is a costly process and is not a fundamental requirement for existing high rise blocks. New build developments above 30m in height now have to provide sprinklers as part of Approved Part B of Building Regulations. While their effect in the case of Grenfell could be argued to be limited, there is an argument to see these installed in all high rise social housing, particularly the vulnerable nature and limited mobility of residents living on upper floors.

3. Compartmentalisation of flats assumes the fire source is internal, not external

Residential flat walls, doors and ceilings are required to be provided to protect the flat from fire for a minimum of 30 minutes. Compartmentalisation assumes the source of the fire is internal rather than external thereby also highlighting the potentially disastrous effect of fire ingress from the cladding system.

4. Evidence indicates panellised systems are a major fire risk

product-fr-cw

Celotex RS500 used at Grenfell Tower

reynobond_Compo_large

Chartered surveyor Arnold Tarling has been a recurrent figure in the media, highlighting an industry response which points to the cladding as a contributor to the rapid spread of fire across the external envelope of the building. Retrofitting towers is a common practice among social housing providers primarily to improve thermal performance and save on energy bills while also providing cosmetic upgrades.

However thin ‘tin-foil-like’ metal films which are attached to insulating panels do not provide significant protection from flammable insulation behind them polyisocyanurate (PIR). Installation of these panels include providing fire stops at each floor in order to limit fire spread however flames from cladding panels appear to have bypassed these. Fire safety experts also point to the cavities present in such cladding systems of 30-50mm which allows oxygen to encourage fire spread verically.

Examples in Dubai, Melbourne and Paris have been cited as dangerous examples along with the recent fire at Lakanal House in 2009.

‘The London Building Act, which was replaced in 1985 with the national building regulations, required panels to have fire resistance of up to one hour. Class O panels do not provide this level of fire resistance.’ Lessons from Lakanal – Inside Housing

Planning drawings for Grenfell Tower indicate a proposed zinc-faced cladding panel however this appears to have been substituted with an aluminium replacement which has a lower melting point at 600C.

Drawing-952306-2.jpg

Aside from the technical aspects, the most alarming aspect of this process is the grim discovery of a history of concerns by residents about living conditions and in particular fire safety concerns through the ‘Grenfell Action Group.’ This record indicates a series of warnings regarding fire strategy, power surges, smoke alarms, communal lighting etc. which accompany fears that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.’

It important not to use this episode as a call to demolish every tall building built in the 1960s or 70s. Tall buildings are typically extremely safe places to be and cities all over the world depend on them to allow higher densities. What Grenfell House should prompt is a more rigid check of existing buildings, specifically internal compartmentation, fire rating of common parts and the effect of retrofitted services such as gas piping. More importantly, it highlights the need for more stringent regulation of building practices, installation and the use of cheap building materials.

The uncomfortable truth however in response to the question fielded by reporters ‘how could this happen in the UK in 2017?’ is that it is a result of continued under investment in social housing. Politicians know that all over London similar resident groups have spawned with repeated concerns over living standards under the shadow of future regeneration plans. In response to a question regarding the living standards of London’s poor, David Lammy MP for instance described those living in designated social housing as the ‘lucky ones,’ highlighting the thousands of people who end up in B&Bs or the private rented sector in overcrowded flats unfit for modern day human habitation. Nick Cohen summed this up ‘In any tower block for the rich from Canary Wharf to Hyde Park, if the homeowners said they were in danger, their apartment managers would have jumped to reassure them. Comfortable people know how to complain, or how to hire professionals to complain on their behalf.’ Grenfell has shone an unavoidable light on the political undercurrents of London’s housing. Health and safety standards should transcend buying power or tenure and arguably be made more stringent for social housing. Now must be the time to change this model.

2017 General Election housing guide

Here’s a last-minute summary of the main parties’ policies on housing.

Conservative

  • Implement the Homelessness Reduction Act to halve rough sleeping
  • Build 160,000 houses on government-owned land
  • New “Council Housing Deals” with “ambitious, pro-development, local authorities to help them build more social housing” which will be sold privately after 10 to 15 years with an automatic Right to Buy

Labour

  • 4,000 additional homes available for people with a history of rough sleeping
  • at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale
  • Introduce controls on rent rises

Lib Dems

  • ‘Set in motion’ at least 10 new Garden Cities in England
  • A new national Housingand Infrastructure Development Bank, to increase housebuilding to 300,000 homes a year
  • End Right to Buy
  • Tackle developers guilty of landbanking 3 years after planning consent
  • Target ‘buy to leave’ homes with 200% council tax

Greens

  • Build 100,000 social rental homes a year by 2020
  • Introduce rent controls and ban letting fees
  • End Right to Buy

UKIP

  • Introduce locally-made, factory-built modular homes
  • Provide 100,000 homes for younger people
  • Launch a review into operation of Housing Associations

Analysis

The Conservatives initially set out with a positive plan to give ‘ambitious’ local authorities the chance to undercut developers for land and to form deals to develop social housing. However this plan has since been clarified that these homes would be built as ‘affordable’ rather than social rent which now infamously has come to mean they may be priced at 80% of market value. They would also be eligible for automatic Right to Buy after 10 or 15 years, a policy which Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens are all in favour of scrapping.

Given the break in Labour’s manifesto with the current economic model, the housing proposals could arguably have gone further, particularly on borrowing limits for local authorities. A plan to tackle homelessness is positive and target completion numbers are also highly optimistic.

The Lib Dems seem to be more motivated by individual elements of housing policy rather than an overarching political stance on the issue. It is notable that housing is classed alongside infrastructure and positive steps include addressing longstanding problems of landbanking. 300,000 homes a year however is highly ambitious and like many of these policies, prioritises numbers over quality for manifesto purposes.

Stoke Newington Literary Festival: Five events to look out for


Now in its seventh year, the Stoke Newington Literary Festival hosts a series of talks this weekend by novelists, journalists, musicians and historians across venues in N16 – here are five particularly worth catching:

Ece Temelkuran


Exiled Turkish journalist and novelist Ece Temelkuran has been named ‘Turkey’s most-read political columnist’ and is a passionate advocate for human rights. Her 2016 book Turkey: The Insane and The Melancholy, explores the paradox of this astonishing country and her latest novel Women Who Blow On Knots ponders social questions of politics, religion and feminism in the Middle East.

(The Old Church, Sunday 4pm)  £5

Book here

Green and Pleasant Land

Travis Elborough (A Walk in the Park) and John Grindrod, whose first book Concretopia was a brilliant celebration of post-war architecture, has now written Outskirts, a nature memoir that relates the story of Britain’s Green Belt. With Helen Griffiths, Chief Executive of Fields in Trust, the charity founded in 1925 as the National Playing Fields Association, they consider all things verdant in the city and beyond.

Book here 

Angela Saini: Inferior


Using contemporary scientific research, Angela Saini challenges existing attitudes towards women in their perceived role as mother and their fundamental biological differences to men. As a science journalist, broadcaster and academic, Angela is a regular contributor to New Scientist, The Guardian and publishes her new book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story this year.

£6. Time – 13.00, Saturday. Venue – Unitarian Chapel

Book here

Back in Five Minutes.

Amir Dotan (@HistoryofStokey) recently completed a gazetteer of every shop or trade premises on Stoke Newington Church Street since 1847 (along with a photographic slide-show). From a time when oil shops, boot-makers, drapers, tailors & pawnbrokers dominated Church Street, to today’s wine merchants, cafes and boutiques, this unique project charts the changing social and cultural composition of Stoke Newington over the past 170 years. Amir talks to writer Ken Worpole on the street’s deep social history, discussing whether terms such as gentrification hide more than they reveal about one of London’s fastest-changing ‘urban villages’.

£4. Time – 11:00 , Sunday. Venue – Library Gallery

Book here

Selfie

We are supposed to be slim, prosperous, happy, extroverted and popular: our culture’s image of the perfect self. But people are suffering under the torture of this impossible fantasy: suicide and depression are on the rise yet brands and social media continue to fuel it. Will Storr (Selfie) talks to Marcus Gilroy-Ware (Filling The Void: Emotion, Capitalism and Social Media) about why it’s so powerful and what can be done to break the spell.

£6. Time – 17:00, Saturday. Venue – The Old Church

Book here

The principle of using housing wealth to fund social care is a fair proposal – just not in this form

‘Heartless, nasty and cruel’ said Tim Farron. An ‘incompetent U-turn’ claimed Ed Miliband. The outcry surrounding Conservative plans, branded a ‘dementia tax,’ to reform social care funded by pensioners’ property wealth culminated in the attempted reassurance by Theresa May that ‘nothing had changed.’ Even the most casual observer to politics will be aware that the party’s electoral success depends heavily on its core support of the elderly – the so-called ‘grey vote.’ An ICM/Guardian poll last month for instance demonstrated that 85% of the over-75s asked intended to vote Conservative. The problem which the country is now squaring up to, however, is the universally accepted notion that social care is underfunded. Following David Cameron’s victory in 2010, the following statistics were deemed a key issue for parliament – 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old.  The latest projections are for 5½ million more elderly people in 20 years time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050.

Funding, as we know, would have to be generated to pay for this by a) higher taxation or b) greater borrowing by government. Rather than simply funding this through a national income tax, the idea of drawing on the vast piles of accumulated wealth through residential property to fund elderly care is, on the surface, a sensible idea to partly redress the wealth disparity between young and old. Torsten Bell’s piece for the Resolution Foundation marked this as a turning point for ‘intergenerational fairness,’ given the faltering of past political attempts such as the mansion tax to swing the balance away from the economically active to the more affluent elderly.

The idea based around a false sense of meritocracy that one should not be penalised for ‘working hard, paying your taxes etc.’ is so deeply engrained in society that it fails to recognise the spectacular post-1980s boom in housing values which were caused by complex economics totally outside the control of the vast majority of the population. The reaction to this also highlights the anxiety in this country regarding the transfer of wealth inter-generationally. Assets passed down to younger family members are, aside from further inflationary schemes such as Help to Buy, the easiest path to future housing wealth and create a dramatic range in prosperity among the inheriting classes.

Resolution Foundation - ONS

source: Resolution foundation

The levels of fear which snowballed among middle-England pensioners over the weekend was the prospect of entire life savings and property disappearing down to the last £100k all through no fault of their own. The attempt by the Government to save vast sums of money on funding social care by having no cap on the upper limit was what proved so toxic.

A fairer idea would be to pool wealth from all pensioners with assets over £100k, either through a fixed sum or a percentage of total assets upon retirement or death which contributes to a national programme of social care (see Gordon Brown’s 2010 policy.) The same thinking can be applied to the often wasteful use of the ubiquitous winter fuel allowance and free bus passes for property-rich over 65s. It is misleading and outdated to cast all pensioners as ‘vulnerable’ and given that 76% of them own their properties, it is sensible to use this uplift in property value over the years to contribute to public services. What is clear, however, is the utter outrage this causes when put to the electoral test.

How would Corbyn’s million-home programme actually work?

‘Mugwump’ or not, Jeremy Corbyn will continue to be cast over the coming weeks as a slippery pair of hands in which to place our collective trust. The monotone playlist of ‘strong and stable leadership’ sound bites will continue to percolate into the minds of a partially interested public. But what do we actually know of Corbyn’s policies which he so often strains to focus on in interviews?

Among the headline-grabbers of nationalising the railways, providing free school meals to all children and the idea of increasing taxes on the rich (those on more than c.£70,000) is the programme to build a million homes in five years. Half of these would be ‘council homes.’

Ever since the public sector stopped building housing during the 1980s, analysts have insisted repeatedly that the private sector is either incapable or unwilling to plug the supply gap. A giant national programme of housebuilding at affordable rent levels would of course be welcome by those, particularly the young, who on average need 48% of their income to afford a 1-bed flat (57% in London). However how would this policy work in practice? What funding vehicles would need to be set up to finance this vast ambitious programme?

Corbyn’s housing plan admits to these homes being commissioned by a ‘combination’ of local authorities, housing associations and developers. In reality this would mean either a large subsidy being paid out to developers or stringent 50% affordable housing targets being imposed on the construction industry. As it stands, training up local authorities to establish funding programmes and attract skills to build at this scale is an objective rather than a reality. Ambitious targets however, are of course be welcome given the lukewarm nature of present public policy towards the provision of affordable housing.

Corbyn’s target refers only to ‘council housing’ with no specifics on tenure type or where these homes might be built. ‘Social rent’ is the most accurate definition for what most of the electorate refer to as ‘council’ housing, which is priced at between 30-50% of market rates. In 2015, local authorities in England built under 3,000 units of this tenure, illustrating the vast gap to reach Corbyn’s target. Councils are, after all, far removed entities from what they were in the 1970s and now are set up often with more sophisticated ALMOs in order to finance the development of council land for both private sale and affordable housing.

This proposed policy is tied into a more general mega-fund created through a so-called National Investment Bank. Corbyn proposes borrowing £15bn a year to service the construction of 200,000 homes, the principle being that that one-third of this would be partially recouped through taxation of the construction industry.

A National Investment Bank could support new build housing projects with low interest rates, both by councils and developers as long as tough new conditions were met on the proportion of genuinely affordable housing built. For every £1 spent on housing construction an extra £2.09 is generated in the economy.

Allowing councils to borrow more to develop long term income streams is  not something confined to a misty-eyed Socialism of the past. It is an active policy of some of the more progressive and financially able local authorities in this country. A recent article in the Financial Times revealed that local authorities are increasingly investing in commercial property with the aim of creating profits to meet the shortfall in social services funding. Councils are able to do this through the Public Works Loan Board, often at 100% of the property value to buy up shopping centres, warehouses or office space. Surely the much lower risk option of borrowing to build new, social housing to create a long-term stable income stream should also be extended to councils in the same way?

A slightly more individualistic set of policy-making might include a more substantial support for smaller scale developments, particularly for emerging sectors such as custom build and the financial incentives for struggling SME contractors to diversify the market. Such proposals may also provide a healthy political balance to ease the monotone nature of public policy dependent simply on heavy borrowing.

In summary, while it remains understandably vague,  Corbyn’s original 2015 document on housing provides very little on the surface to disagree with and in essence is merely fast-tracking the current trajectory of housing delivery. It would even be reasonable to suggest that the principles of these policies will be repackaged and sold in any governments’ future housing policies in that they represent, in broad terms, basic common sense.

Further information:

Corbyn’s Housing Paper (Aug 2015)

Paper by John Healey MP on local Labour council housing innovations > here

Brexit will prioritise robotics over human training

Last summer, the BBC aired a reality TV show Britain’s Hardest Workers: Inside the low-wage economy, which pitted 20 real-life jobseekers against one another performing menial, low-wage and demeaning jobs, each assessed and eliminated depending on their efficiency. Workers were given various tasks including picking vegetables, cleaning hotel rooms or sorting supermarket food deliveries in warehouses. Such examples bring an alarming reality to the era of zero-hours contracts and precarious work which provide a potent political rationale for widespread automation to liberate society from the grind of work.

Brexit was a decision taken on the basis of dramatically differing, often contradictory reasoning but one taken predominantly by an ageing, low-skilled slice of the population in the name of either controlling immigration or the perception of a reclaimed sovereignty. Now that the hourglass has been flipped, we await with trepidation as the impending negotiations unfold. However one recurring theme was played out over and over as the Brexit postmortems continued to be carried out all over the English periphery, that of identity derived from work.

37652FDE00000578-3749489-image-a-12_1471633130078

Britain’s Hardest Workers image source

Anger loosely directed towards the technocrats of the European Union for these failings to replace stable, skilled and locally recognised jobs with the drudgery of modern low-wage work is placed as blame for not limiting the brutality of the global market on domestic labour conditions. Up until this point, it has almost always proved cheaper, or more politically palatable to pay a human to carry out a basic task than invest in an automated equivalent. The idea that departing EU workers will leave jobs open for the native English to happily grab is one of the most serious on the long list of fundamental misconceptions at present. Both skilled and unskilled labour will not be able be speedily replaced by Britons since long abandoning the skilling up in manual tasks in favour of service economy jobs supplemented by reformed university courses.

For an industry such as construction, this has potentially catastrophic effects. As a recent GLA report stated, of the 348,000 construction workers currently in London, 27% are from EU countries. Early indicators are that migration from the EU to the UK is slowing post-Brexit and the present skills shortage has been well documented. Just as a rebalancing of the UK economy away from the City may be a very slim thread of positivity from this process, an obvious solution to this may be the opportunity to launch into a national skills programme for construction and manufacturing. However, as Sky’s Ed Conway recently pointed out, the government, or more specifically Philip Hammond, has for some time been mesmerised by the hypnotic lures of boosting economic productivity.

© Lindbäcks Group AB, Sweden

The most obvious route into this is automation. Laing O’Rourke recently built their own pre-fabrication facility with the help of handouts dating back to the coalition government’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI). Such an operation is capable of churning out building components to create 10,000 homes per year. The take up of this process will, as ever, depend on subsidies and incentivisation through capital tax allowances which encourage R&D.

Building at speed for politically charged housebuilding targets may well fuse with a boom in investments in robot manufacturing. The widely influential Farmer report, stingingly titled Modernise or Die, supports calls for technological advancements to the construction industry. By moving construction away from its highly fluctuating manual labour market, Farmer argues that assembly line production with quicker outputs will stabilise the boom and bust nature of the industry.

Just as fruit picking will not be sufficiently replaced by human labour, UK-born construction workers are scarce and 20% of the existing workforce are heading into retirement within 5-10 years. Automation will continue to forge its way into political discourse as a way of relinquishing menial jobs from society. For construction however, technological improvements will come as a necessity to meet the swollen level of demand.

Teaching architects new tricks – BIM & industry reskilling

The production of architecture relies on the ability to produce drawings which can be read by others. Architects select their medium, whether it be generated by parametric coding or by wiggly pen drawings. The official doctrine of developing a design through careful examination of plan, section and elevation have however been threatened by the development of technology. As construction projects increasingly demand a wide array of consultants and regulatory checks, Building Information Modelling (BIM) has become the contemporary architect’s modus operandi, bringing with it promises of a simplified process.

The importance of the program has fuelled a growing polarisation in the profession between large and small practices. From April last year centrally procured public sector projects required the implementation of BIM at ‘Level 2.’ Since the government made this objective clear in 2011, a new career has spawned informally as architects, technicians and engineers have quietly scoured through BIM training bibles in order to forge new roles within practices. This change has also by default removed smaller offices from the process or forced them to work as subsidiaries of larger firms able to command the resources to invest in BIM.

Consequently smaller practices have countered this, reverting to more humane messages of craft, materials and scale as the antithesis of modern construction.


At the opposite end of the spectrum, the emergence of BIM as a necessary product through which a building is managed has generated a situation where licensing costs for computer workstation might exceed the cost of the human labour required to operate it. This tells us much about the future of automation for the building industry and the skills we choose to invest in. Whether or not academic institutions choose to reflect this in the training of its students, this has implications for how we define the role of an architect in practice today.

BIM was created in order to make the production of building information accessible among different disciplines and to some extent standardise building elements, thereby favouring larger manufacturers able to advertise through seamless online resources.

Scepticism remains as to whether BIM produces more inventive or ambitious buildings and tends to follow an attitude to construction centred more on mechanical servicing (and energy consumption) rather than pure design or layout. While its efficiencies in automating many processes such as scheduling are clear, grumbles will remain over hampered creativity.

Perhaps the wider question regarding BIM is the implications in the demand for skills within the industry. If BIM software appears to dominate the professional lives of architects, then this by default requires a large scale reskilling program, made possible currently only through private, out of hours dedication on the part of architects or investment in training by practices. Graduates are in a similar position – BIM remains absent from academic programs yet as individuals they are typically more willing and more flexible in the skills they are able to acquire early on in their careers. It remains to be seen whether or not schools of architecture decide to take up this shift in how we co-ordinate the design of buildings. In an industry where investment in new skills is fraught with danger, it falls upon private practices to make up the shortfall.