Architects have attacked the culture of cost-cutting and “value-stripping” in UK construction, which they believe contributed to the fatal Grenfell Tower fire.
“This terrible event may prove to be the shock that finally forces commissioning public clients and the construction industry to take design quality and specification seriously,” said Paul Karakusevic of London-based Karakusevic Carson Architects.
“Value engineering, and the culture of value stripping, needs to be removed from the British lexicon and replaced by careful and considered design and robust quality building methods.”
Karakusevic – the author of a guide to the best European social housing – said the UK’s cities been left scarred by decades of “value engineering” in which he has seen sound designs undermined for the sake of profit maximisation.
Neil Deely of London studio Metropolitan Works said the problem is widespread, with financial risk often considered more highly than safety.
“Arms are twisted, designers scoffed at for raising concerns, and the contracting industry incentivises itself to continually cut cost and maximise margins at all costs,” Deely told Dezeen.
“Armies of project managers, whose task it is to manage risk (which usually means financial and programme risk rather than health and safety) drive down cost and quality to meet unrealistic budgets and/or shareholders’ expectations of profit,” he added.
Piers Taylor of Bath-based Invisible Studio said those dependent on social housing are worst affected by these corner-cutting measures.
“To be working class or to live in social housing is to be punished by a state and a society that considers your life so worthless that you should be banished to a world that is dangerous, ugly, cruel and uncaring,” he said.
“The Grenfell fire, tragically, comes as no surprise,” added Taylor. “As a society we have become almost blind to a world where social care, social housing and social services have their life, quite literally, squeezed out of them.”
The architects spoke out after being contacted by Dezeen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which at least 80 residents of the north London high-rise are believed to have lost their lives.
Their words express a collective anger over what they see as an endemic culture that sidelines design quality in pursuit of profit.
“I’d love to believe that this terrible fire at Grenfell Tower will herald a sea change on how housing is conceived and delivered in the UK but sadly, I think that despite an enormous amount of collective outrage followed by blame, finger-pointing and empty rhetoric instead of a new dawn for housing in the UK,” said Taylor.
“It will mean more empty headed and useless consultants muddling their way through false promises to deliver more or less of the same substandard, ugly, socially isolating and dangerous housing we already bustle the most needy in our society into.”
“Deregulation, modern procurement practices and recent government housing policy have all conspired here,” added Deely.
“This terrible event may prove to be the shock that finally forces commissioning public clients and the construction industry to take design quality and specification seriously.value engineering, and the culture of value stripping, needs to be removed from the British lexicon and replaced by careful and considered design and robust quality building methods.”
Graham Haworth and Steve Tompkins, founders of London practice Haworth Tompkins hope the disaster will not lead to a backlash against tall buildings.
“This horrifying incident should not undermine the suitability of towers for certain urban locations, nor should it deter local authorities from seeking and carrying out the upgrades that are desperately needed within so much existing housing,” they said.
“For the most part these upgrades ensure a much safer and more secure environment for communities.”
The Royal Institute of British Architects has called for an urgent review of fire regulations in the aftermath of the fire.
Yesterday morning Grenfell survivors and the media were barred from a Kensington and Chelsea council meeting regarding the fire, after dozens stormed the town hall in protest last week.
Labour councillor Robert Atkinson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am ashamed of the way in which the council proceeded. They’ve been hiding from residents; they’ve been hiding from backbench councillors for over a week.”
Piers Taylor said that the government’s response to the incident is endemic of how those in power treat the working class.
“That the state should have failed on multiple counts to provide social housing of an adequate standard to support human life is symptomatic of a state that, quite simply, couldn’t care less about the provision of facilities – including housing – that are the basis of any civilised society,” said Taylor.
“In particular, to be working class or to live in social housing is to be punished by a state and a society that considers your life so worthless that you should be banished to a world that is dangerous, ugly, cruel and uncaring.”