In 2012 Grenfell Tower, a building of council flats in Kensington, began major renovations. In 2017 the tower caught fire, which resulted in 71 deaths. This article aims to judge whether the relevant parties in the lead up to the fire acted ethically by providing two opposing arguments.
The renovation contract was won by Rydon Ltd, for £8.7 million, this was £2.5 million cheaper than previous contractor. Part of the renovations included fitting thermal insulation covered by cladding.
Budget, not builders, to blame
It is generally thought the new cladding fitted to the tower allowed the fire to spread faster than it otherwise would have and therefore contributed to the loss of life and property. However, the cladding was passed by the council officer in 2015 so surely if there is anyone at fault for this tragedy it is the regulators who must shoulder the blame.
New cladding was put in place to improve the insulation of the tower, creating warmer homes for the residents and reducing their heating bills. By installing the new cladding engineers were aiming to do the greatest good to the most people so were acting ethically according to Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism theory. Residents would enjoy lower heating costs and, by using the cheapest legal cladding, the council would get the most affordable bill for the renovation.
The residents of Grenfell Tower were some of the poorest in the area so the housing was built to provide desperately needed cheap accommodation to these people. The residents knew that the accommodation was built to a basic but legal standard and so there is no blame for the engineers of this project, they were designing housing to be as cheap as possible.
Kantian ethics says that an action in agreement with an established norm is ethical. 52 other towers were identified using identical cladding after the fire in London alone, so the Grenfell renovation engineers appear to have been doing what was common practice. It is the responsibility of the government to clearly define what good building practice is, not individual engineering companies. In this case they failed in their duty.
Council budget cuts for the renovation project are resulted in PE cladding being used instead of more fire retardant cladding. The engineers could have used another type of cladding which might have slowed down the spread of the fire but wouldn’t have been within the budget of the council. In addition the problem wasn’t just the cladding but with there not being sufficient fire extinguisher systems in place, such as fire hoses or a sprinkler system which would have put out the fire before it could reach the cladding. Whether it was ethical for the cladding to be used is contentious. Kant’s theory is a deontological moral theory: “the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfil our duty.” From this perspective the cladding is ethical as the duty of the designers was to improve the thermal performance of the building as cheaply as possible. After examining all the facts it is clear to see that it was ethical for the engineers to use this cladding since it was legal and the engineers fulfilled the duty required of them.
Virtue in Construction
Virtue ethics, an ethical movement tracing its roots to Immanuel Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue, state that an individual’s actions are to be judged by their moral character. In other words, when following this framework an engineer’s decisions are not to be evaluated by their consequences – financial or otherwise. Rather, it is of more interest to investigate whether the parties responsible for the cladding on Grenfell tower were acting in good faith.
During the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, a period of two years, the renovation works were inspected for fire safety a total of sixteen times. Yet the Kensington and Chelsea council inspectors consistently failed to report that the tower was being clad in material that had already been effectively banned on buildings taller than 10 metres (the Grenfell Tower is 67 metres tall).
In fact Arconic, the manufacturers of the aluminium composite tiles used for the tower’s cladding, had themselves advised in their brochure that incombustible core tiles had to be used in tall buildings. The Local Area Building Control, an organisation representing all local building control in Britain, stated in 2016 that Ceolex insulation should only be used with fibre cement tiles. And yet Grenfell Tower was equipped with a combination of aluminium composite external tiles and combustible Ceolex isolation, in complete disregard of advice issued about both of those components. Arconic offered incombustible tiles which were otherwise similar to those used on the tower, for a premium of £2 per square metre.
Although this practice was advised against and had been banned in countries including Australia and the UAE, the use of these combustible materials was technically legal under UK building regulations. Since the Grenfell disaster, these regulations have come under high scrutiny. So why were the renovators at fault if they stuck to the regulations? All constructors of buildings have a duty to those in and around them to provide a safe structure. To help achieve this building regulations are designed to ensure buildings are safe, amongst other things.
If the constructors were warned against using the combustible cladding, they knew that it was a danger and would go against their duty of providing a safe building. If they knew this, they would see that the building regulations were outdated. At this point the renovators should have used their virtues to morally judge the situation and act accordingly. Virtues can be thought of positive character traits within an individual that allow them to make moral decisions. If the renovators used virtue ethics that would have taken two courses of action:
- Identified that using the cladding would endanger the lives its occupants and used a safe cladding.
- Identified that the building regulations were outdated and notified the appropriate authorities.