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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Grenfell Tower - The Failure of Power and Anticipation

Photo by Natalie Oxford -, CC BY 4.0

If we look behind a single means of egress, lack of sprinklers, and a flammable exterior skin, the Grenfell Tower tragedy represents the failure of power and anticipation. The borough was given public funds. This gave them the power to build housing at their discretion based on the building codes governing construction at the time. The borough emphasized frugality. Their limited level of knowledge, experience and empathy led them to follow the minimum requirements of the building code. 

When cost became an issue, the building code permitted a cheaper, flammable building skin called Reynoboard FR. It also permitted the omission of sprinklers and a single means of egress. These options were chosen because they were permitted. Increased risk may have been anticipated but was ignored. The building code gave comfort to power that could not appreciate the level of risk being assumed. It had been appointed/elected under the concept of leadership by reasonable men. (This concept generally emphasizes budget and limits the anticipation and appreciation of risk.) In other words, the power to give shelter design direction was in the wrong hands and governing laws permitted an excessive level of risk. (These decision-makers may have included some planning, design and construction professionals to give these decisions credibility, but group decisions involve compromise searching for consensus.) The group concept often emphasizes budget and limits the anticipation and appreciation of risk. 

The laws that govern leadership elections, appointments and shelter decisions are political. Anticipation is irrelevant when the law permits risk and grants power to “reasonable men” regarding increasingly technical issues. In other words, it is the structure of power, the organization of decision-making, and the absence of influential anticipation that has led to this tragedy. Everyone is a victim of our extremely limited capacity to anticipate risk, our penchant to focus on cost containment, and our inadequate, partially ineffective, and time-consuming regulation. This is no excuse for tragedy, but there is no single villain that can be held accountable. The tragedy represents the failure of a governing concept. There is a lesson to be learned, there are priorities to be re-arranged, there is momentum to be re-directed, and there is power to be relocated in order to improve anticipation and the laws it produces. 

Buildings are shelter that is designed to comply with minimum building code requirements under the concept that maximum requirements would unfairly penalize free enterprise and its profit-making potential. The Grenfell tragedy will not help us learn to construct safer buildings. We know how. It may help us remove the power to make discretionary building decisions from those who do not have the knowledge to anticipate risk, and from those who do not have public health, safety and welfare as their first priority. Anything less will continue to threaten our physical, social, psychological, environmental and economic quality of life. 

We learn from tragedy because we have not been given the gift of greater foresight. We anticipate with the accumulation and evaluation of information. We must continually re-learn old lessons because tragedy will never happen to us. 

Safe shelter is essential for survival. “Safe” is an evolving definition. It comes into conflict with the definition of “affordable”, and affordable has had discretionary priority. At some point we must learn to reverse these priorities and correlate safety with health and quality of life. 

There is another lesson from Grenfell that is more abstract. Safe shelter is not safe when unlimited sprawl is allowed to threaten our source of life. There are now two worlds on a single planet – The Built Domain with urban and rural phyla; and The Natural Domain with a classification that is beyond the scope of this essay. We must learn to make The Built Domain a second priority and reconcile these two worlds with symbiotic policy and enforcement before tragedy becomes irreversible; but agreement will require anticipation without examples of tragedy. 

NOTE: The narrative about the underlying strategy that produced Grenfell Tower is based on assumptions from experience. No information should be considered fact without verification. 

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