At the start of the official inquiry into the London Grenfell building fire, a minute’s silence was observed to honour those who had lost their lives.
The exact number of victims is still unknown due to the extent of the devastation that occurred inside the building. The person appointed to head the inquiry, retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, said the inquiry would provide answers to the question of how a disaster of this kind could occur to a 21st century London building. He claimed the inquiry was not established for the purposes of punishing anyone or to award claims for compensation. He said the sole objective was to get to the truth. Let’s hope he does that.
A separate police investigation is also underway which might result in criminal charges being laid but so far no action has been taken.
The scope of the inquiry will involve examining the cause and spread of the fire, the design, construction and refurbishment works carried out on the building, whether fire regulations relating to high-rise buildings were adequate and whether they were being complied with. The actions of the regulatory authorities and the various response agencies will also be scrutinised.
There would be many nervous individuals pondering their own professional roles and responsibilities in this matter. Let’s hope the scrutiny will go right to the top. Far too often, whether it be within the confines of public sector bureaucracies or private sector business enterprises, the senior executive, management, business owners and directors that sit within their respective organisational structures seem able to avoid serious accountability whilst happily collecting their generous pay checks and profits. Blame shifting is an inherent survival skill amongst many individuals occupying positions in the ‘executive’ level workforce.
Let’s hope that Martin Moore-Bick rejects any attempt by these individuals to distance themselves from responsibility by use of a distal hierarchy excuse. There must be culpability attached to decisions and directions that were made and actions taken. In a perfect world the inquiry chairman would simply reject the use of words such as ‘mistake’, ‘oversight’, ‘unaware’ or ‘assumed’ as a form of defence. Ignorance is never an excuse.
Nothing will rectify the enormous damage and loss of those directly impacted by this disaster. Every professional involved in the building design and construction industry sector will clearly understand that this was a disaster on a scale that should never have occurred. It has generated significant alarm here in Australia with a recent "4 Corners" program in which Sourceable’s very own Phil Dwyer gave valuable insights into non-conforming building products, construction practices and the inherent risks they present.
Dwyer has also provided a submission to our government’s Economics References Committee senate inquiry into non-conforming building products. So well done Phil, and keep reminding our legislators that they need to act up and start making meaningful changes to our industry!
Whilst the Australian government inquiry was not established to specifically investigate the Grenfell fire, it has naturally become a significant point of reference when releasing its interim report into the use of aluminium composite cladding materials in Australia’s built environment.
There are 100 pages in their report, which you can download from the Australian Parliamentary Office or email firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain a document. Naturally, much of the analysis tends to focus on the unsuitability of PE core sandwich panel materials as building claddings. Recommendations include mandatory third party certification, national supply chain registers, standardised test procedures and product auditing.
Whilst the subject matter may have come as a surprise to those ‘expert’ politicians on the panel, the only surprise to any expert whose job directly involves the design, construction and commissioning of any substantive building construction project was that it could ever be mismanaged enough to fall through the gaps of the multiple checks and balances within our current regulatory control scheme and the quality assurance protocols that any highly trained and qualified construction professional would have surely insisted upon as part of their management plan.
In my opinion, the primary focus of the report is found in the issues examined in Chapter 4 and titled ‘Accountability and Enforcement.’ This is what was summarised within that chapter:
Greater coordination and a national approach to reform
4.13 The committee believes consideration should also be given to an expanded national role for the Commonwealth government across all elements of the building and construction industry, starting with the Building Ministers' Forum.
National licencing schemes
4.20 The committee considers that a national licencing scheme for all trades and professionals involved in the building and construction industry including: building surveyors, building inspectors, builders and project managers, would improve compliance and provide greater consumer protection and public safety outcomes. A national licencing scheme, including requirements for continuing professional development would ensure that building practitioners have the necessary skills and knowledge to operate in the building industry's complex regulatory environment.
4.21 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government work with state and territory governments to establish a national licensing scheme, with requirements for continued professional development for all building practitioners.
Need for greater on-site supervision and oversight
4.39 The committee supports the implementation of nationally consistent mandatory on-site inspections throughout the construction process. Whether this is done through the reinstatement of the role of Clerk of Works or some other process is eventually a decision for governments. Either way, it is evident from the evidence received that there needs to be a central oversight role independent from industry to provide assurance to the public that structures are built according to the agreed national standards. The committee also endorses the inclusion of mandatory inspections by fire safety engineers and fire authorities to ensure buildings are compliant and public safety is upheld.
If you examine the submissions from the various professional institutes and associations that have obviously aided the committee’s findings, you see consensus that our current inconsistent standards within our training and accreditation schemes for persons who wish to operate within the building construction sector is characterised by dysfunctional state based regulations. This can be summed up by the committee’s view in Chapter 4:20:
“The committee considers that a national licencing scheme for all trades and professionals involved in the building and construction industry including: building surveyors, building inspectors, builders and project managers, would improve compliance and provide greater consumer protection and public safety outcomes. A national licencing scheme, including requirements for continuing professional development would ensure that building practitioners have the necessary skills and knowledge to operate in the building industry's complex regulatory environment.”
The frightening part of our current situation is that NSW, as Australia’s most populous state which is vigorously engaged in constructing the greatest number of medium to high rise Class 2 apartment buildings, actually has the lowest level of regulatory controls on the educational and accreditation standards for the purposes of builder licensing. It is an antiquated ‘one size fits all’ approach that effectively assumes that the handy carpenter down the street is equipped with the professional skills and capabilities to properly construct a modern apartment tower block – perhaps even ones like the Grenfell Building.
We deserve high quality, safe and compliant buildings. The pathway to this objective is a standardised, nationally regulated training and accreditation scheme that applies to everyone who wants to operate within various roles of the building and construction industry sector. The first step is to acknowledge that properly constructing a timber deck and pergola, whilst important, requires a far lower level of accountability, construction knowledge and building management skills than that required to construct a complex multilevel building structure. Hence, the formal training, qualification levels and corresponding work licence categories that can adequately reflect such obvious differences must be introduced immediately as a priority benchmark.
Philosopher and novelist George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It has generated many paraphrases and variants but in this particular situation, the most appropriate adjustment to that original quote would be “Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”