Grenfell Tower Ablaze

Grenfell Tower Disaster – Who’s To Blame?

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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

Grenfell Tower - AfterwardsVirtue 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:

  1. Identified that using the cladding would endanger the lives its occupants and used a safe cladding.
  2. Identified that the building regulations were outdated and notified the appropriate authorities.

13 thoughts on “Grenfell Tower Disaster – Who’s To Blame?

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  2. I would question how well informed this ‘local councillor’ was, as generally Grenfell seems like a crisis in social responsibility and regulation. Although it was probably approved officially, I would question how rigorous this was. This is because increasingly, regulation is left to underfunded and weak public bodies. Instead, regulation should occur under the auspices of a sophisticated and well-resourced organisation. Regulatory bodies are on the decrease which has seen horrors such as Grenfell, but also a shocking decrease in labour standards and the state of the climate.

  3. I think that the blame should largely be placed upon the local authorities responsible for the design of the buildings rather than the engineers, considering that the engineers were simply sticking to the design criteria.

    However, this could be seen as the engineers simply ‘following orders’. It begs the question of whether they suspected that the building materials was dangerous and whether they informed the local authorities of their potential concerns?

    It would be interesting to discuss: if the engineers expressed their concerns over the safety of the cladding to the government authorities and were ignored, what would their moral obligation be to do next?

  4. Thought provoking article offering insight in to the different perspectives on this issue.

    The Kantian ethics argument is interesting as I feel there is some ambiguity as to what should be considered as the designer/engineers duty. Is this just to meet regulations or to ensure all work is completed to ensure safety of future users as well?

  5. Overall this article is well argued.

    I did have some difficulty with the use of Kantian ethics in justification of the use of the cladding. If you are to argue that “an action in agreement with an established norm is ethical” you have to evaluate exactly where these ‘norms’ come from. Norms are created as ideological tools for control by those in society with power to maintain an imbalance of control in their favour.

    Legal standards of construction are created by those in considerate privilege (government officials, engineers), in this instance prioritising budget over the people it will effect. As you say, the residents of Grenfell tower were people off ‘low’ socio-economic background, representative of those who are often not recognised and are excluded from the construction of ‘norms’. If the government do not set a budget which is large enough to function safely then it is the budget which should be changed, not the production materials.

    Any individuals that failed to query this ‘norm’ of the idolisation of monetary gain over the individual, including engineers, failed the residents of Grenfell tower.

  6. An interesting and engaging article that clearly points out that there wasn’t just solely one party that was to blame for this tragic incident. I do agree that with the engineers knowing that the cladding used on the tower was combustible, alternative materials should have been utilised within the renovation work even though the material was within the legal framework. As an engineer, you have a moral responsibility of ensuring that actions that you have taken do not cause risk to life for individuals that used that apartment block. However, I do agree that the blame for the incidents should also go to the UK government and local council. As budgets cuts should not get in the way of providing a safe home for the intended individuals and that the necessary legal frameworks should be regularly updated to ensure that these materials are illegal to use in these scenarios. Instead of the classic case of waiting for tragic incidents such as this before the making the necessary changes.

  7. This is an interesting argument. It seems apparent that there are several parties to blame. First of all the government for allowing the legal standard of accommodation to be at such a low level. The council is also at fault for failing to report the insufficiencies within the towers materials and for not assigning a reasonable budget to the renovation.
    However, from the perspective of engineers I think a certain level of responsibility has to be acknowledged. As you mention ‘All constructors of buildings have a duty to those in and around them to provide a safe structure.’ It seems reasonable to assume that as engineers, the contractors should have a reasonable knowledge of the quality of materials and should be informed enough to make a judgment call as to the safety of these materials use in a building of this size. Part of engineer’s responsibilities should be to inform the government if regulations are not at a standard where citizens are protected.
    Kant treats virtue as a kind of strength of the will to do what is right. Virtue is more than having good intentions, and we need to develop it over time. We have a duty to try to develop virtue, but we are also responsible if, lacking sufficient virtue, we do wrong through weakness of will. The events of Grenfell should highlight the need to assess how engineers will to do what is right and should have the strength to assert the failures of legal standards. Grenfell highlights the weakness of the will of both contractors and the council to act in a morally sufficient way regarding the protection if citizens which should be their highest responsibility.

  8. A great article. I am often drawn towards the separatist approach, between engineers and management, and this example highlights the folly of that viewpoint. The engineers here appear to fundamentally be doing their job, that of providing the desired improvements within the budget restraints set upon them. A challenge that many engineers will be expected to face.

    However, if engineers remove themselves from responsibility, leaving these judgements to what management deem best (whilst remaining legal) and accepting the UK safety regulations despite the fact many other nations does not permit it, has resulted in many losing their lives. It seems important for engineers to always reflect on their personal responsibility and not just follow like sheep when it appears that there may be cause for concern.

  9. It is understandable that if you choose to live in cheaper accommodation, it will be made more cheaply. Nevertheless, it should be built safely. The fact that the manufacturers of the cladding had already advised against its use on tall buildings suggests fault on the part of the renovators.

    However I agree that the engineers were not as at fault as the government for using something that met the basic legal standard. The more important question is why the government approved such a flammable material in the first place. The real issue seems to also have been that council not budgeting enough money for the renovation. It surprises me that in an area as wealthy as Kensington & Chelsea, the council did not have more money available to contribute towards the renovation.

    Ultimately, both council and engineers should have properly considered the potential for a disaster of this kind and worked harder to prevent it happening. Why is it only after the events that the government have begun scrutinising what materials are and aren’t safe for construction? It seems to me both parties are somewhat to blame, but perhaps more so the government and council for not properly financing the renovations, and allowing such dangerous materials to be legally used in the first place.

  10. Instructive and very relevant. Highlights need for coordination between engineers and project management.

  11. Informative and interesting article. Thought provoking. Makes me want to learn more about the causes and consequences of this tragedy.

  12. Clear, engaging and interesting blog post, outlining opposing perspectives in a comprehensive and balanced manner.

  13. A nicely argued article, that says that Virtue Ethics shows that the decisions made were unethical.

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