Digital technology has driven a phenomenal pace of change in the last few decades. In fact, since 1990 we’ve gone from a few million internet users, roughly 0.05% of the world’s population, to 3.6 billion, around half of it.
This exponential growth has touched every aspect of life and transformed every industry and profession.
For construction, it’s influenced everything from design to raw material manufacturing, but this innovation has a downside, as it’s hard to keep up with. And for the residents of Grenfell Tower the pace of change has come at too high a price.
The tragedy of the Grenfell has highlighted how far these technologies, and the materials and techniques they’ve influenced, have outstripped our building standards.
In fact the very regulations put in place to ensure the safety of the people who build and live there are now no longer fit for purpose.
What’s more, the issue isn’t just to do with new build homes and properties. It also affects the retrofitting applied to our existing housing stock to enable people to take advantage of our technological revolution.
Drilling for cabling and ducting can compromise the fire protection factored into building design, as can retrofit cladding and insulation.
Two very clear findings have come from Grenfell’s early investigations. Across the board it’s become apparent that our Building Regulations are no longer fit for purpose.
Secondly, it’s highlighted the potential hazards associated with retrofitting. Retrofitting is an essential element of ensuring our housing stock is functional. But, unintentionally, it can seriously compromise properties that were previously compliant with Building Regs.
It’s imperative that Government acts, and it’s already called for a major review of Building Regulations in England.
The loss of 80+ lives has triggered a massive – and justifiable – state of alarm that’s seen tall building assessments and reviews taking place urgently across the UK and even the rest of the world.
What’s unclear is how short the regulations fall, or whether it’s the interpretation of the rules that’s led to so many issues arising, particularly with tall building retrofits.
But beyond the review, this issue raises a question mark for custom build. Will councils remain convinced that volumes of independently-built homes, fulfilled by a range of contractors and SMEs, are a safe bet?
This is particularly relevant where self-finish is a feature of a site to help factor in affordability.
My feeling is that the Building Regulations need to be robust enough to sign off on these custom homes sites.
With stronger regulations the unusual will be perfectly acceptable, whether that’s a second fix completed by a self-builder or MMC throwing up new innovations.
After all, today’s innovation might become tomorrow’s mainstream.
But more detailed regulations will require more, and better trained, inspectors. And these, together with a programme of fit-for-purpose Continuous Professional Development, will cost money.
In these times of austerity it’s challenging for local authorities to even think about this, but it’s become crystal clear that it’s no longer a choice.
As a country we’re experimenting far more with timber in our homes, from CNC to high-rise timber-frame buildings. We should be looking abroad to see how the countries that traditionally build in timber regulate their industries, and cherry pick the best of their practice, to help bring ours up to date.
And maybe we need to rethink how people view the buildings they live in, placing a shared responsibility on owners to live “well” in their homes.
Perhaps new homes should come with some form of repository of information – a sort of building manual that is locked to the building in perpetuity.
As well as containing information about electrics, load-bearing walls and drain plans, these could detail how retrospective changes, such as drilling for ducts, could compromise a building. This would help people to live well, and safely, in their homes.
And in this digital age it should be fairly easy to ensure this information is kept online, so future residents will be able to access the information, too.
We need diversity and experimental homes – they enrich our neighbourhoods and drive change in the wider market, as well as giving people more of a stake in their home.
We know that custom build, as an example of a new sector, challenges multiple areas, from planning, finance and warranties, and now it’s clear that it’s also the regulations that need to keep pace.
You can’t, and nor should you, stop progress. Going forwards it’s vital that the construction sector keeps pace to ensure that the homes and factories we build are fit for purpose. And this is for both now and for the lifetime of their usefulness.
But more than this, it’s vital that people have faith in their homes, and can sleep well in the knowledge that they are living in a safe and secure home.