The extent to which builders have used inflammable cladding on buildings in Australia and the UK has shocked us all since its discovery in the wake of a number of serious fires, including the tragedy at Grenfell Tower in London in June 2017.
The people with the highest level of concern are those who are living in these buildings – quite rightly they want the problem fixed, and fast.
But who should pay for the remediation work? It feels wrong for those who live there to be asked to fund a problem caused by someone else.
Even if Government pays doesn’t that mean those who cut the corners in the first place get let off the hook rather than being held to account? Of course it does. But waiting for those who are truly responsible to own up and do the right thing won’t work either – some might, but many will at the very least prevaricate and instigate lengthy legal proceedings to argue the case. That leaves residents living in buildings they are deeply concerned about indefinitely. It’s a real ‘Catch 22’ – or is it?
The UK Government and now the Government of Victoria have recognised that public safety and restoration of public confidence must come first and have taken the decision to fund removal of cladding and remediation out of the public purse. But the battle to hold those to account must go on – through the courts if necessary to recoup as much as possible of that money.
It can’t stop there either. In the last few years we have learned a great deal about the state of our buildings – particularly high rise high occupancy residential properties and what we’ve learned isn’t pretty.
- Complex prescriptive regulations and guidance are not helpful – they lead to confusion, accidental and deliberate misinterpretation of what is written down;
- Roles and responsibilities are also confused, and the system allows people to pass on problems to others in the system;
- The competency of large parts of the workforce is lacking which means they don’t understand the importance of critical safety features they may be installing in a building and how they need to be installed to be effective;
- Even when enforcement action is taken against those who break the rules, the sanctions are so weak as to make it unlikely that lessons will be learned, and practices changed;
- Record keeping is poor which means that after a building is complete no one really knows whether it was built to design and if it is fit for purpose – why has this industry not engaged with what digital technology can do to change this so easily?
I repeat what I’ve been saying for more than two years now – this is about much more than cladding! We need to drive a massive culture change in the whole construction and built environment sectors that holds people accountable for designing, building, maintaining and managing buildings which are safe for people to live in throughout the full life cycle.
People – residents – must come first, they must have a voice to raise their concerns, they need to be listened to and the whole industry needs to be held to account for its responsibilities for their safety.
That will require substantive regulatory change in Australia just as it does here in the UK. A new regulatory system needs to drive the right behaviours, make responsibilities crystal clear, create significant penalties for those who flout the law and incentives for those who do the right thing.
We also need leaders within the construction industry to stand up and be counted. Those who do build with users in mind, those who understand that quality matters and have already implemented good practices should be recognised and become preferred suppliers.
The market needs to find a way to recognise the importance of quality which means changing procurement practices away from simply awarding the contract to the lowest cost.
The cost of building a high-rise block is a small part of the life cycle cost of the building – getting it right in the first place will lead to lower costs for the rest of the building’s life and happier, safer residents. But above all such a culture change to accompany the much-needed regulatory changes is the only way to ensure that more lives are not lost in tragic fires or other catastrophes in our high-rise buildings.
Removing dangerous cladding is a very important first step on a long journey; let us not fall into the short termism trap of thinking we’ve fixed the problem when we’ve fixed the cladding.
Dame Judith Hackitt is a decorated British engineer who visited Australia in February as a guest of RMIT’s School of Property, Construction and Project Management with support from the Victorian Building Association, the Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Future Fuels CRC. She presented to industry, government and community representatives about her Building a Safer Future final report. She is currently the Chair of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, which was commissioned by the British Government following the Grenfell Tower fire.