Statement on the Grenfell Tower Fire
The appearance, massing, and form of a building, including its relationship to its site and context, are integral to building performance. As architects, designers, and planners, we are committed to these design considerations, knowing that they have a powerful effect upon how people live and their experience of the built environment. When it came to renovate London’s Grenfell Tower, correcting life safety issues for residents should have come before surface cladding. Instead, Grenfell tower got a £8.6m aesthetic upgrade to its exterior made of dangerously flammable foam-backed panels, largely to appeal to its wealthy neighborhood "context", even as residents complained of un-addressed life safety issues such as the fire alarm system. The fact that non-flammable foam was available for just a few pounds more (https://qz.com/1007903/the-catastrophic-consequences-of-being-poor-in-one-of-londons-richest-neighborhoods/) indicates how thoroughly corrupted the project’s priorities and its commitment to health, safety, and welfare truly were.
By all reports, this tragedy was completely avoidable if even a small amount of attention had been paid to the residents at Grenfell themselves, who had raised serious safety concerns about the building many times. In the same vein, public agencies in the United States are racing to meet the needs of fossil fuel companies, weapons makers, and Trump family business associates while ignoring the needs of rural communities, distressed urban neighborhoods, and even aging suburbs. We cannot afford to see our department of Housing and Urban Development, which helps organize and regulate private housing finance and public housing, run by ideologues and Trump family cronies who know nothing about buildings, safety, urban planning, or public participation. We need to restore government to a system that listens to those most directly impacted by its policies and is responsive to the needs of all citizens. Design professionals have an important role to play to ensure that all stakeholders in public housing (and private housing and all other types of projects) get a considerate hearing, to ensure that safety comes first, and to press public agencies for the funds needed to do our work safely and properly.
Lastly, it is unacceptable that wealthy countries like the U.S. and U.K. can find tremendous amounts of money for waging wars around the world -- ostensibly to protect residents at home while destroying housing in other countries -- but spend so little on maintaining public housing that this kind of disaster occurs. The deaths at the Grenfell Towers are just the final outcome of a worldview that systematically starves public safety net agencies -- including housing authorities -- in order to give tax cuts to the financial and real estate sectors and wage endless wars.