Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Grenfell: The only winners will be the fee earners

It is not just Building Regulations in the UK, but the official guidance to the Regulations that must be followed for any new construction project. With an industrial scale laser printer and a few reams of A4 you can, given time, print the whole set of volumes yourself. Unlike British Standards and suchlike, Building Regs are free for all to access - so no reason for anyone not to comply. I frequently have to explain the UK system to the natives. In Austria, only a qualified and licensed Baumeister can build commercially, and written Building Regs are limited to two or three sides of A4 as reliance is wholly on professional competence. In the UK, I explain, anyone can be a builder, yes, anyone - even those with criminal convictions, perhaps especially those with criminal convictions in some cases ... but they must follow this stack of rules we call Building Regs. 

The consequences are as you might imagine. Here, builders are very expensive, very conservative and will over-engineer even the simplest jobs to absurd lengths. Design of new domestic dwellings is banal, even ugly, but massive. Any nester looking to construct an innovative, beautiful house incorporating the latest building technology and cutting edge materials would be better off moving to the UK; here they will be met with noisy tooth-sucking and head-shaking. And builders here are very, very, stubborn. 

My new roof - one of the few jobs here for which I used a profi - is to my eyes still a travesty to which I am not used. The old roof was a lovely 18th century testament of settlement and minor movement, gently undulating with dips, fold and curves. Having worked with English Heritage many times in the UK - very amicably - my instructions here to the builders were to retain the historic form and character in the new covering. No. They spent weeks and threw away a deal of profit on eliminating every historic irregularity with shims, packers and counter-battens to achieve a millimetre perfect regularity. The rows were intense. Three times I threatened to throw them off the job. All to no avail; I could not have found a roofer in all Austria who would build a crooked roof. For their part, having never seen an English restoration, they were convinced I was mad and needed to be over-ruled for my own good. 

What a roof restoration should look like ... unknown to Austrians

Would Grenfell have been done here? Probably not. Contractors here have very much more power and stubbornness than in the UK - the Baumeister has personal liability for failure. They would have used the best materials - with a hefty factor of safety on top - and it was the Client's job to pay whatever it cost. There is little incentive to do otherwise. And as I found, once a contractor is appointed, he very much takes control of the job; the Client is just an irritating noise to be ignored.

So I already know the outcome of the Grenfell enquiry. The mob need some red meat, so a scapegoat or two will be found. We will be told pompously that lessons have been learnt. And above all, new regulations, controls and standards will be legislated to make it more difficult for our bucaneer, unqualified construction industry to flout official intentions. It will not in future be left just to building inspectors to police the Regs. And this will mean a fee bonanza for the suits - I can almost hear this morning the discussions as professional service firms contemplate creating new compliance divisions.

14 comments:

right-writes said...

More executive contributions to the blandscape then.

I prefer the system where there are no regulations but the owner and his friends build for their own benefit...

Amish style.

Where something is being built for a more public purpose or for a client, the "guild system" worked very well until the puritan industrial revolution and politicians took over and decided that grift was the best route for their personal happiness.

Anonymous said...

You assume that 'builders' in the UK read the building regulations.

Our new britons can be quite creative, 'open plan' first floors that quickly join the ground floor and flexible shower heads fed from the mains fitted adjacent to WC pans for instance.

Mark The Skint Sailor said...

At Grenfell the enquiry has already reported that fitting cladding and moving the windows out to the cladding in a (not fireproof enough)box structure allowed the fire to enter the flats easily.

I know for sure other residential buildings in other cities have used a similar box structure to extend the window ledge out to the cladding.

Unless that box structure is as fireproof as the original concrete structure, then the spread of fire from flat to flat in such installations will be so much easier.

The system breaks down when the Fire Service assume such structural modifications meet the original standard of fire safety and base their recommendations accordingly, rather than revisit the fire safety of such modification and assess them from scratch.

Polyurethane sandwich cladding, foam insulation, UPVC windows,: stand alone each individually may be safe, but put them together in a system and a catastrophe awaits.

Dave_G said...


For private construction I'd leave it to the person paying.

For public structures it should be of the highest quality, functionality, safety and economy.

Stop spending time/money policing the private sector - concentrate on potential injury to innocent members of the public.

jack ketch said...

I always maintain that watching "Auf Wiedersehen,Pet" should be mandatory for anyone relocating to the "Lass Dich Nicht BRD-igen" or Schluchtenpisserland. Badly outdated now of course , but still a valuable insight into the differences in mindset between the English, Geordies and Germans...especially in the building game.

rapscallion said...

jack ketch @ 11:54

"still a valuable insight into the differences in mindset between the English, Geordies and Germans...especially in the building game."

Yeah, wasn't Auschwitz so well engineered.

You'd have never got it past planning permission in England.

Gordon the Fence Post Tortoise said...

Just an observation.........


I note that the Grenfell refurbishment architects have shut up shop and skedaddled outa town rather pronto like... - before the smoke cleared even.

Not my specialty (IANAL) but aren't there fairly strict public liability issues in there for the architects?

Thud said...

We do build well here and still have the talent to do quality work. We had fun here with stone yet incorporated air source etc.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFym-BGE4MM

Michael said...

Mark the Skint Sailor, you make a good point, and I wondered about something on the same lines when I found the sort of panels they used.

Back in the eighties, firms like Robertsons, Cape, Metecno etc, pioneered the manufacture of steel sandwich panels, filled with polyisocyanurate insulation. It took ages to get the specification past the insurers, but these days these panels are used everywhere.

I watched a BRE test and saw how damn good they were, but they had to be designed and fitted properly.

I wonder why the architect didn't have a closer look at the criteria, and why the building inspector didn't either?

I probably know already!

DeeDee99 said...

The other winners are going to be the lawyers and, to a lesser degree, the illegal immigrants who survived the blaze.

TrT said...

My understanding is some as far away as Glasgow were lucky enough to survive

Tony Harrison said...

I've done a great deal of work on three houses in England and France, with most of the heavy lifting done by those "profi" builders: this is not a great deal of experience on which to base judgements I admit, but I doubt that I have been uniquely unfortunate in having experienced so much bad work by so-called pro builders.
Raedwald had to go the profi route for his roof, paying through the nose it seems for results he didn't approve of , though at least it was high quality (I've been to Germany a lot, know something about the construction scene there).
But in the absence of obligatory qualifications in pro builders, for me it seems just like estate agents and the motor trade: in dealing with builders you need to cross your fingers, sacrifice a few cockerels, maintain hawk-like observation practically on an hourly basis while the boys work, not believe a word they say about their abilities, never leave them alone for half a day even - and then you still have to grit your teeth and have a stiff G&T or three in preparation for the disappointments you just know will confront you on (or soon after) completion.
I wouldn't trust the average builder or artisan as far as I could throw him. I bloody hate them.

Anonymous said...

Britain, when the Indians became cowboy builders, thank fuck we don't have regular earth tremors ref Pakistan and in comparison with Chilem death tolls - single figures in Chile and think of a number in Pakistan.

John Miller said...

If you can contain the urge to seriously damage some politicians with a club hammer, this is worth a read:

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n11/andrew-ohagan/the-tower.