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Five years after Grenfell – Jane Duncan, Chair of RIBA Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety reflects

Five years on from the fire at Grenfell Tower, the Chair of our Fire Safety Expert Advisory Group, Jane Duncan reflects on its impact to the industry.

14 June 2022

The immensely reflective five year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire should really have been the opportunity for architects and their professional colleagues in the industry to celebrate the huge sea-change that was needed in the industry to prevent such a fire from ‘ever happening again’. It is not. 

Within five years we should surely have both learned from and booted out the horrors of professionals', authorities,’ and constructors’ complacency and lack of responsibility, a broken procurement process, and above all, acquiescence with ‘gaming of the system’ which still seeks profits over the safety of people. 

The shocking facts exposed by the skills of the QCs in the public inquiry have shaken us all to the core. We are left wondering what happened within our industry, and why governments failed to adequately regulate over many years, leaving such a poorly managed and inadequate system, and crumbled public trust.  

This system did not just fail the industry, but more crucially failed to care for the thousands of people impacted, whether lost in the fire or still in potentially unsafe homes across the country. 

The RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety has been battling for change with a loud and insistent industry voice since it was established after the fire at Grenfell Tower.  From the earliest days, and with fire industry support, we called for:

  • removal of reliance on stay-put policies which blatantly failed at Grenfell
  • for alternative means of escape to be regulated
  • for the removal of highly combustible cladding materials from existing and new buildings
  • for desktop studies to be removed as a means of regulation B4 compliance
  • for better procurement practices and enhanced client responsibility and scrutiny over construction work
  • for sprinklers in residential buildings over 11m
  • that designs consider the safety of people first

Although government has recently announced some additional new restrictions in relation to combustible materials and enhanced requirements in relation to alarm systems, we still await the much needed comprehensive review of Approved Document B and associate guidance. 

Our long term fight is for further research on the efficacy of a single staircase as means of escape and on the height, an additional means of escape or staircase should be required. In the UK we have an almost unique system allowing for a single staircase building up to any height. The Building Safety Regulator should urgently undertake this research to ensure adequate access for both firefighters and a possible full evacuation of residents in residential buildings. 

To assist members, the RIBA published the RIBA Fire Safety Compliance Tracker – incorporating a design decisions template - based on the International Fire Safety Standard: Common Principles, and its associated Framework. 

Training is available on the RIBA Academy to support the new Mandatory Competence in Health and Life Safety, which will be fully implemented in 2023, and the RIBA specialist register for Principal Designers is under development to help ensure architects have the skills required to fulfil the Principal Designer role for all buildings and “higher risk” buildings in particular. 

The Building Safety Act and Building Safety Regulator will need many years to bed down, but with the right support may change the whole oversight for the better.  In the meantime, and with support from the RIBA President and RIBA Council, the group will continue its mission, to broadcast the members’ strong ethical voice, and to fight for inclusive design for fire and life safety in all buildings, and especially those where vulnerable people may be in occupation.  I hope you will support this. 

Jane Duncan OBE PPRIBA  

Chair RIBA Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety 

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