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BGA chairman's blog: The Grenfell Tower tragedy

British Geotechnical Association chairman Martin Preene asks what are the lessons for the geotechnical industry from the Grenfell Tower tragedy


Martin Preene is the chairman of the British Geotechnical Association

The fire and the tragic loss of life at Grenfell Tower is likely to become a defining event for the UK housing and construction industries for decades to come. The investigations and enquiries are just starting, but it is clear from the public-domain information that questions will be asked about materials, design and construction processes.

It is easy to think that, because there are no apparent geotechnical issues in the Grenfell events, then this tragedy, no matter how much we may be saddened by it, has little implication on geotechnical practice. However, while we await the results of the investigations and enquiries, I think there some issues that could emerge that are directly relevant to geotechnics.

For all their apparent differences, the fire safety industry and the geotechnical industry face a similar challenge in that, if they do their jobs well, they can become forgotten. Geotechnical engineers of old used to say “All my best work is buried underground!” – literally out of sight. Similarly, few fire engineering measures are notable to a layperson, and their importance can be overlooked. This means that a common challenge for geotechnical engineering and fire safety engineering is that success (and therefore the “value” of getting things right) can be invisible – success is the absence of apparent problems or consequences. Conversely, “failure” is all obvious, and can be tragic, as at Grenfell Tower, or, in relation to geotechnics, for the excavation collapse on the Nicoll Highway Project in Singapore in 2004.

In this environment, it is easy for good design and construction practices to be gradually squeezed from project to project. Terms such as “value engineering” or “optimisation” are getting a bad name as a result of being perceived as primarily a cost cutting mechanism, rather than looking for better, not just cheaper solutions, when, in reality, better often will give lower overall costs. These change processes should not consider cost alone – the impacts on design and quality elements must be considered adequately; this may be one of the factors considered in the Grenfell investigations.

The nature and relevance of certain technical risks in fire engineering or geotechnical engineering are not static and change with time and in response to the nature of the construction industry. History tells us design, construction and regulation practices may struggle to keep pace. Under these conditions, safety and risk management tends to move in cycles, with safety improvements – or even consolidation of safety measures – often only gaining impetus following a “failure”. An example from the geotechnical industry is the Aberfan disaster in 1966 when 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives. Following a public enquiry, this led to changes in the management and regulation of mine waste tips. This approach of “advance by failure” is not sustainable and unlikely to be acceptable to the population at large. 

Some questions to be asked of how we design and manage geotechnical works include:

  • Regulation and standards: Regulation (eg HSE), standards (eg British Standards) and industry guidance (eg Ciria, FPS, BDA and others) need to keep pace with evolving practice. This is not easy and requires adequate funding (from government and industry) and ensuring that the right expertise and experience is involved.
  • Competent persons: The general public would expect key decisions (especially where they have safety or stability implications) to be made or approved by a “competent person”. However, in many areas of construction competency is not defined – but it is of little practical use to require a competent person without defining competency. The ground engineering industry recognised this situation over 10 years ago and has since developed a Register of Ground Engineering Professionals (Rogep) which provides clients with the names, qualifications and experience of registrants.
  • Role of continuous professional development: Best practice of design, methods and materials evolves rapidly and may overtake regulation and standards. We have a professional duty to keep up to date with the state-of-the-art in our field, via various forms of CPD. Designers and installers need to have sufficient knowledge to able to ensure the systems they install are safe and effective.
  • Understanding the performance of systems: The public-domain information regarding Grenfell Tower appears to indicate that a system – in that case cladding panels – had unacceptable performance in post-failure tests when individual elements were expected to have adequate performance. A question for the geotechnical engineering profession is – do we adequately consider the collective performance of systems made of up diverse elements, such as the interaction between retaining walls, shoring and ground improvement?
  • Role of other designers in the supply chain: Looking at the case of Grenfell Tower, it seems probable that, alongside the obvious designers such as the architects, structural engineers, building services engineers, etc, that manufacturers, suppliers and specialist sub- contractors may have implicit design roles, based on their specialist knowledge and the advice they provide, that is not recognised in the formal contract arrangements. This undoubtedly occurs in several aspects of geotechnical engineering, where suppliers and specialist sub-contractors have extensive experience they can apply to projects. This needs to be recognised when planning projects, and ideally involving these supply chain specialists as soon as possible in the project.

The construction industry awaits the outcome of the various enquiries and investigations into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, but we need to start thinking now about how we balance costs, performance and safety in our industry.

Martin Preene is the chairman of the British Geotechnical Association

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