With the horror of Grenfell Tower still fresh in the public’s minds, serious questions must be asked. Such tragedy raises concerns about safety. Investigations into the event reveal that unsafe ‘cladding’ is responsible for the spread of the blaze. The amount saved in building, £5000. The human cost, incalculable.
The error is in our psychological susceptibility to personal gain. Austerity is just another face of human selfishness.
With death numbers likely to rise, the UK cannot afford another Grenfell. Accusations of blame fly, but what may be missed is the true enemy. Some blame austerity, but the blame runs much deeper. The error is in our psychological susceptibility to personal gain. Austerity is just another face of human selfishness.
We are to blame.
Grenfell; an epitaph to safety
In the early hours of June 14th, 2017 hundreds of lives changed forever. A runaway blaze swept through a 22 story tower block in London. Scenes of horror and carnage burned into the minds of the nation, the hollowed charred hulk an epitaph to society. As of now, the death toll stands at 80. But investigations into the building have found much more. Disquieting news that many public buildings, as well as flats, use the same very cladding that acted as a fuel for the fire. These include a Children’s Hospital.
The question must be asked, if we know this cladding is a risk, then why is it present? What leads to such blatant disregard for human life? And how can we prevent this happening again? The answer lies in how and why buildings are made, and unfortunately, a profit margin.
Building design, and the cost of success
The process of planning and building is complex. Hundreds of employees, contractors, and financiers working together on a project that must be perfect to the tiniest detail. Not only must a building look good, but fulfill stringent safety criteria, provide internet access, electricity, good access, plumbing and much more. The process of construction must be planned meticulously, with every step analyzed and cost projected before a brick is laid. Problems must be solved as soon as they appear, or the domino effect is catastrophic. Checklists, time and work.
Design itself is both rich in potential and inherently limited by practicality. Some of the world’s most iconic structures, like the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, have spared little expense in creating a work of art. This is whilst maintaining stringent standards. The bridged and fiercely luminescent cylinders penetrate the sky, causing a feeling of smallness and awe. On the other end of the scale we see such grandeur sacrificed for practicality and cost, with large scale government buildings resembling 1970’s prisons.
When does the arcing splendour of a great tower betray the safety of those living inside?
Overall there is a move to gentrify the old and improve the new, but somewhere in the mystique and practicality there is a limit. When does cost mean that design is secondary? When does the arcing splendour of a great tower betray the safety of those living inside?
The decision to save just a fraction of the buildings cost killed 80 people.
As for any large scale project, the cost is a limiting factor. Efficiency in construction is a cornerstone of commerce. Planning saves money, as problems may be perceived before they start, specifications modified to cheapest cost and shortcuts found. Although this all may seem okay on the surface, Grenfell is just one example where cuts kill. The decision to save just a fraction of the buildings cost killed 80. By the math, each life saved £62.50. So why did this happen?
Austerity and risk
With the tragedy still dominating the news, Grenfell became a crusade against austerity. News that Conservative councillors sabotaged attempts to improve the safety of the ill-fated tower became a national fascination. But the story does not stop there. Further investigation shows that the building was erected under a Labour government. So can we really blame austerity? The answer is Yes and No.
The issue is not austerity, The Conservative Party or even The Labour Party, but the psychology and ethics of business.
Decisions made to save money undoubtedly worsened Grenfell. But the rationale of these decisions is the real basis for discontent. The austerity effort is just another example of cost saving at the expense of others. Successive Governments and businesses have cut corners for time immemorial. Austerity is the same villain wearing a different hat. The issue is not austerity, the Conservatives or even Labour, but the psychology and ethics of business. A psychology adapted from the eons of evolution that put us here today. We act to survive.
In every business decision, there are two core components that must be considered. Risk and Benefit. If the benefit outweighs the risk, then the project is a good investment. This is the same for selling a sandwich or building the Titanic. Each requires planning, material, a certain cost, and must perform a purpose. Each also has certain risks, you may choke on a sandwich or hit an iceberg. The difference between dying from a sandwich or the Titanic is much greater, one death vs a thousand. Still, these decisions are made using the same process. Simple math, without ethical consideration. Will I benefit?
The ethics of austerity, business, and profit
It is clear that Grenfell is not just a failure of cladding, but one of humanity. Cost cutting cuts short lives. In doing so it raised a specter of safety. It also urged a nation to stand up against measures immoral. It is an accepted human trait to be selfish, to see profit and shun others in its pursuit. But it is also obvious that people are giving, philanthropic and selfless. It is the dichotomy of a cause that dictates our behavior, and our decision making. It is in the oldest parts of our brain and genes that lead such acts, but as humans, we can overcome. We can act for the best of others, not ourselves.
It is clear that Grenfell is not just a failure of cladding, but one of humanity.
What if the main role of a building was not profit? What if success is measured in not pounds, but the quality of living? If this was the case, Grenfell would have cost £5000 more and still be filled with living families. The Titanic would likely be decommissioned, but still a museum to industry. The sandwich would be gone, but I would not be hungry. The same decision making, on an ethical level, when applied to planning and construction of a building would ensure safety as well as quality. The only victim would be the profit margin.
The unfortunate truth is that as long as the world turns against on the dollar then people will always cut corners. The basic psychology of success, historically, relies on expansion and industry. Risk vs Benefit, Cost Vs Profit. This mantra is expressed dutifully in Capitalism. Profit drives success. Material possession guides behavior.
Grenfell, an example for the future
To properly honor Grenfell we must learn a lesson as a society. The burned out husk is not a disease, but a symptom of something much worse. It is an expression of every time you walk by a homeless man and save your money for a coffee. It is a homage to every time a manager refuses to give a pay rise because he wants a new Porsche. In essence, the same selfishness that provides for ourselves will always take away from another.
For builders and architects, this means one simple thing; lives cost money. And the human cost of Grenfell should not be felt again.