‘Architects can all play a role,’ says former RIBA president

Former RIBA president George Ferguson personally inspected work to insulate high-rise blocks of social housing when he was mayor of Bristol.

He wanted to reassure himself by visiting a sample of the buildings, although he said he had full faith in the council’s professional staff and contractors.

And he urged all architects to “be vigilant and expose things that shouldn’t be going on”, saying: “You don’t have to be mayor”.

The £10 million Bristol project included refurbishment and retrofitting the towers with external insulation.

“I came away thinking they were doing a pretty good job but I still had a terrible moment when Grenfell went up,” he told BD.

“I happened to be awake so was watching it on television. I thought, ‘Oh my God: did we have any of those panels?’ I knew the ones I’d inspected had a solid exterior brick sandwich and fire stops at every floor, and that they had put in more fire doors and landings. But I did check after Grenfell.”

He said he inspected the towers, in 2013/14, in his capacity as mayor rather than as an architect, and that he spent a lot of his mayoralty visiting different parts of the city. He was the city’s first directly elected mayor in 2012, serving until last year.

“Anyone in charge of a city needs to reassure themselves and that’s all I was doing,” he said. “But of course as an architect I didn’t shut my eyes.

“As an architect you are bound to be interested in the physical fabric of your city – the schools, the houses.

“You don’t have to be mayor: architects can all play a role. We can all be vigilant and expose things that shouldn’t be going on. Every architect can see what is being built in a city and is free to comment.”

He said Bristol’s new leaders were taking the issues very seriously. He has sent the council – which still owns its 27,500 homes directly – the RIBA’s “really practical” new guidance on tall buildings.

High on his own list of priorities would be ensuring all housing over six storeys has two staircases, even if that meant costly adaptation of existing stock.