In December 2020, nimtim announced that we would no longer be specifying Kingspan or Celotex products because the behaviour of the companies before and after the Grenfell fire did not align with our own values and ethics. Here we explain our decision in more detail and why we think architects can be part of the solution to the issues raised by the case.
The second part of the Grenfell inquiry has been a gruesome companion to the pandemic throughout this year. There has been a grim escalation of revelations as the inquiry progressed with each new cross-examination somehow worse than the last.
It started with the architects: out-of-their depth and under-resourced. We heard of shocking mistakes and others that made most of us squirm (out-of-sync drawing registers and not knowing Part B of the building regs inside-out). It then moved on to the contractors and subcontractors revealing a culture of nepotism, cynicism and a pursuit of profit at any cost. We saw lost, and then mysteriously discovered notebooks, secret meetings between client and contractor. A clearly traumatised project architect was callously described as ‘not being the same person as he was at the start’ by a member of the client team which begged the question: who could be after being involved in this project?
The inquiry reached what will hopefully be its nadir just before it broke until 2021, with revelations surrounding the cladding suppliers: accused of cheating fire tests and providing misleading information to specifiers. Some of the email and text exchanges revealed were breathtaking in their cynicism. Worse: while the shell of the tower was still smouldering, they are accused of hiring a PR firm to lobby decision makers NOT to ban their products for use in high rise buildings and threatening litigation to anyone who questioned the safety of their products.
The inquiry gives the impression of an industry that is rotten to the core: motivated only by profit, completely devoid of an ethical or moral compass. It is hard to know where they will even start with findings and conclusions at the end of it all.
The suffering is not isolated to that horrific night at the tower: thousands more across the UK are now unable to sell their homes and/or are living in buildings they fear could suffer the same fate as the Grenfell tower because it is clad in the same insulation.
It deserves to be a watershed in the entire culture of the industry. Perhaps even our whole way of doing business. It is a great shame that it is not getting the attention it deserves thanks to other avoidable and unavoidable crises going on concurrently.
It has made us reflect on our own practice and our own experience of delivering projects. We started our practice 6 years ago after serious illness and other personal challenges. The chance to build a business that reflected our own values was a key motivation for us. This came from personal experience but was also a reflection of our belief that much which is wrong with the world originates from the idea that ‘business is business’. Once enterprise is divorced from ethics, there is no limit to the harm it can do. We wanted to move away from the idea that you leave your personal values at the door when you get to the office and build the culture of our office around a spirit of honesty, fairness and open-ness.
Having worked (until recently) almost exclusively on small domestic projects, we’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to set the tone and approach for the entire team - both during the design phase and on site. At this scale, we are still the stewards of the project - able to set by example how the team behaves and interacts. We are also able to choose not to work with contractors with sharp business practices or other consultants who don’t share our values.
It also gives us the power to decide what products and materials we are happy specifying. This can be related to environmental, performance or ethical issues. As a result of the revelations of the Grenfell Inquiry, we recently stated that nimtim would no longer be specifying either Celotex or Kingspan.
When we speak to our clients and our colleagues and collaborators after a project has finished, one word always comes up - ‘trust’. Our clients are very often delighted with the imagination and vision we bring to the design process but once we’ve gone through the challenge of actually building something, it is ‘trust’ that they come back to. Integrity and honesty (built into our architect’s code of conduct) is what they value most in the midst of an otherwise tough and sometimes bewildering construction Interestingly, contractors also talk about how they appreciate our trustworthiness - it means they know we will listen to their views properly and address their claims and challenges fairly and equitably.
Quite rightly, many within the industry and within the architecture profession have started thinking about how we respond to what has been revealed by the inquiry. Procurement is a significant issue and the pursuit of savings/ profit that is inherent in Design & Build contracts is clearly something to be addressed. Corporate culture amongst contractors and manufacturers is possibly a bigger problem that may be even harder to change.
Early on, after the issues around competence and suitability were raised in relation to the architects, there was talk by the RIBA and ARB about competence tests for qualified architects. This is fine in principle (not sure how you test a profession engaged in such a broad range of activities) but in our view the timing was problematic . It’s right that as a profession we respond - but given the moral vacuum revealed by the rest of the inquiry, the competence of architects is clearly not the main issue. The problem would appear to be an entire industry, from top to bottom that has forgotten that we are creating spaces and buildings for people - and that their safety and well-being should come before any other consideration.
What is required is a reset for the whole industry. If morality is replaced by profiteering then the events at Grenfell tower will be the outcome. Architects and the institutions that represent us should of course respond to lessons from the inquiry. But we should also be positioning ourselves as the solution to the problems it has revealed to be embedded in the industry. It is of course in some ways optimistic to compare the kind of experiences we have on small projects with what happened on the Grenfell tower. However what we experience everyday in the work we do is so different from what we’ve heard about from this dismal project that it is worth reflecting on why and whether there are lessons that can be transferred:
Maybe it’s because we can persuade clients that they shouldn’t always go for the cheapest tender. Maybe because we can make the contractor’s approach to collaboration and their business practices a material consideration in assessing a tender. Maybe because we can explain to clients why it's worth paying extra for a material that isn’t harmful to the environment and that isn’t made by a company that behaves in an unethical way. Almost certainly it is because we believe that setting a moral and ethical framework for behaviour and conduct within a project is one of the most important things that we do. It is something we have found that everyone else values and appreciates.
Unlike almost everyone else within the process, architects are bound by a code of conduct and ethics. We’ve always believed this is one of our greatest assets and one that our representative bodies do not promote enough to the public. In addition to this, architects can also be the ones with the vision for the project as something more than just a vehicle for making money. We are the ones who can carry the vision of what the project can be through the fraught process of delivering it - and put the health and wellbeing of future inhabitants at its core.
Whilst the world gasps at the cynicism and callousness revealed by the inquiry, we should be positioning ourselves as the potential solution. Fundamentally, the problem is not one of process or competence, it is one of ethics and morality. Architects are uniquely placed to become the custodians of a new set of values that can run through every stage of a project. This may demand greater responsibility but it is a responsibility we should fight for and embrace.
An adjusted version of this text appeared in an article in Building Design in March 2022. You can see the article here: https://www.bdonline.co.uk/opinion/ethics-in-architecture-includes-what-you-specify/5116609.article