Update: responding to the Grenfell Tower and Edinburgh Schools incidents

Published: 18/12/2017

Image source: Wikimedia Commons, by ChiralJon

Chief Executive, Martin Powell, outlines the Institution response to the tragic disaster at Grenfell Tower in West London, and to the publication of the Cole Report into the Oxgangs School collapse.

Since President Ian Firth’s last briefing to members, considerable work has continued behind the scenes responding to the tragic disaster at Grenfell Tower in West London and to the publication of the Cole report into the walling collapse at Oxgangs School in Edinburgh.
The Institution is playing an active and influential role contributing to the learning that needs to come out of these two terrible incidents, and the following is a brief update on developments.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry and Review

The main inquiry into Grenfell Tower, under the Chairmanship of Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has a broad remit extending beyond construction. Of more immediacy to members is the Independent Review into Building Regulations and Fire Safety, commissioned by the Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) under the chairmanship of Dame Judith Hackitt. Her interim report was published on 18 December.

The DCLG has already established an independent expert advisory panel to advise on any immediate measures that can be put in place to make buildings safe following the fire. The early focus of the group was on testing of aluminium cladding materials and is now continuing in other areas such as training and competency of those working in the fire safety arena.

The inquiry and review are therefore trying to offer both immediate guidance to building owners and take a longer-term view on changes that might be needed to avert similar disasters.

Speculation about the Grenfell tragedy remains unwise and unhelpful to the official inquiries, but I would like to highlight how much we have appreciated the many messages we have received from members offering assistance of all kinds.

SCOSS and CROSS Reports

Under the guidance of our Structural Safety Group (SCOSS and CROSS) (led by Alastair Soane) together with the Institution’s Engineering Leadership Group (chaired by Vice-President Joe Kindregan), our primary emphasis has been to work collaboratively with the reviews being conducted by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) - to ensure we incorporate the concerns of structural engineers in a coherent cross-industry response. Both groups have been collecting informed evidence that has been submitted to the Hackitt Review and which will be further refined following her interim report. 

The strands of investigation are of course manifold but this Institution is particularly able to draw attention to the invaluable recording and dissemination of guidance to industry via SCOSS and CROSS, and how take-up of these influential assessments and recommendations might be made more impactful. 

Professional registration

Whether increased regulation finds favour, particularly related to structural design sign-off, is too early to judge. However, in light of the Institution’s considerable expertise gained in the operation of the Scottish SER scheme we continue to discuss the merits of adapting the scheme for other parts of the UK. 

The Institution’s uniquely high benchmark for professional competence sets our members in good stead as the built environment sector refocuses on the possible need for specialist registers in some areas of construction. 

Assessing and recognising expertise

In addition to our CPD course in Structural Fire Safety, steps are now being taken to evaluate, develop and prepare a Structural Fire Safety diploma (in tandem with our Seismic and Off-Shore Diplomas), with a view to making this available from quarter 3 in 2018. 

Edinburgh and Beyond

Whilst the incident at Oxgangs Primary School passed without injury to the public, is was a stark reminder that the margin between a near-miss and a fatal disaster is wafer thin.

The Cole Report revealed a collection of failures that reached across the professions, supply chain and client in such a way that could be considered a systemic failure, where changes in construction and procurement practises have converged into a series of unintended consequences.

In his Inaugural Address 2017 President, Ian Firth, raised modern procurement methods as a topic he wished to explore during his Presidency, and subsequently hosted a one-day conference at Institution HQ which discussed the recommendations of the Cole Report on the Oxgangs collapse. This was followed by a round-table workshop focussing on the issue of procurement. 

In the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy (published at the end of November), there is a specific call to review construction procurement. DCLG have asked that CIC take an industry lead on the subject. It is good to know that John Nolan, CIC President, will have an influential voice in this work, having had a strong interest in procurement practice during his tenure as Institution President.

Similarly, John Cole has been asked to carry out further work in Scotland in respect of their own Building Regulations, while Stewart Macartney, structural engineer to the original inquiry, will again be supporting this work. 

In conclusion

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many members who have made and are making a huge contribution by volunteering their expertise and time in respect of these two very serious incidents. Your professionalism and commitment reflect the best traditions of the engineering profession.

A further update on the Grenfell response will follow, once we have digested Dame Judith’s interim findings.

Martin Powell
December 2017 


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