In a column that should make everyone angry, Andrew Mellor blows the whistle on some shocking failures
There has been much discussion in the industry in recent years about poor-quality construction and the impacts this has on architectural aesthetics, building performance and occupant wellbeing.
I have had direct exposure to construction quality issues since the Grenfell tragedy as we investigate the compliance and safety of residential buildings and I am afraid to say there are numerous examples of very poor construction quality out there.
Where defects are found in residential buildings they seem to apply to buildings that have been built or had major refurbishment work within the last decade. Some buildings are so poorly constructed that there will be no option but to demolish them in whole or in part and then reconstruct. Put simply, they are not fit for purpose.
The failings do not just relate to fire safety issues. Other failings relate to structural fixings, thermal performance, weatherproofing and durability, which have potential safety and health impacts as well a clear potential for premature degradation of the building fabric.
We have witnessed the consequences of this poor quality: facade panels falling from height, rapid fire spread to adjacent dwellings, internal mould growth, material degradation and inability of buildings to adequately retain heat and prevent solar gain ingress.
Those that occupy poorly constructed buildings are very typically innocent victims. They have usually had no formal part in the design, procurement and construction process, yet it is these tenants, leaseholders and owners who are directly affected by the actions of others.
Building owners of course have to deal directly with these matters, with the attendant cost in time and money. Morally, they should not be liable for these failings given that the building should have been built properly in the first place.
Building defects will always occur, just like defects will always occur in products from other industries. But what is becoming evident is that this is becoming a potentially much bigger issue for the construction industry than a standard product recall.
So why has this happened? There are of course many contributing factors but the competence of all involved and the drive to build cheaper are, in my opinion, two of the main factors. This is exacerbated by a regime of quality inspection on site which, pre-Grenfell, was at an all-time low in modern times.
Competence is a combination of expertise and experience. Without knowledge of why something must be built in a certain way, and the impacts of not doing so, designers and construction workers cannot possibly contribute to the building of high-quality safe buildings.
Training must therefore be part of the solution, but so must be a realisation that oversight is needed in the form of site managers who fully understand construction detailing and regulatory-compliant solutions, as well as the use of quality inspections at all stages of the construction.
Another aspect that must be considered is the volume of construction waste that is generated by remediating buildings long before the design lifespan of the installed products and individual components has expired. Elements which have a 25- or 60-year design life are being removed in some cases after a few years, many of them composite products that will not easily be recyclable.
The consequences go further and include climate change impacts related to embodied energy, construction activity emissions and building operation emissions related to poorly insulated buildings. Furthermore, virgin materials are being consumed to provide replacement materials. I often wonder how much raw material we have left to construct buildings. Remediating poorly constructed buildings will only contribute to exacerbating our use of finite resources.
For so many reasons the industry has to wake up to the fact that buildings are not disposable items. They need to be soundly built and durable, adaptable, fit for purpose and safe for habitation, ideally for multiple generations.