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Grenfell Tower

Architecture education has "shifted away" from fire safety, experts say on Grenfell anniversary

On the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster, fire safety specialists have attacked UK architecture schools for failing to adequately teach students about the subject.

"Over the fifty years of my career architectural education has progressively shifted its focus away from issues of construction and buildability," said Paul Hyett, who is an expert witness at the ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

"Fire has hardly had a look in for the last four decades," added the former Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) president and vice-president for education.

"I've heard that in an architecture degree you get half a day on fire safety," agreed fire engineer and fire safety consultant Andrea White.

"You get half a day on fire safety"

The lack of training is leading to dangerous knowledge gaps in the architecture profession, argued architectural technologist and fire engineer Frances Maria Peacock.

"A lot of problems still persist within the architecture profession," Peacock told Dezeen. "I think there is still this tendency to want to use thermally efficient materials without thinking too hard about their fire safety."

The experts spoke to Dezeen ahead of today's fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people lost their lives when flames engulfed a high-rise social-housing block in London.

Fire spread rapidly up and around the 24-storey block via flammable external cladding and insulation that had been fitted in a refurbishment completed only a year earlier.

Paul Hyett, who was appointed by the inquiry to analyse the work of the architecture studio involved in the flawed refurbishment, suggested students are not learning enough about fire performance.

"If you examine student portfolios you will find very little even in the way of paying lip service to fire safety," he told Dezeen.

Student projects often "give inadequate consideration to questions such as 'can we get people out in an emergency? Are the escape routes properly protected? Are the materials compliant with code in terms of combustibility?'" said Hyett, who is a founder of Vickery-Hyett Architects and has been an external examiner at four universities.

He added that while there has been "fantastic progress on sustainable design" in recent years, many tutors "have increasingly failed to appreciate the importance of building regulations and the technical performance of materials in their teaching".

"It is also a cultural issue: is it important? Should we look at the building regulations with respect or as something to be got round? Should we treat building control officers with the respect they deserve or as obstacles?" continued Hyett.

Paul Hyett giving evidence at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry
Paul Hyett gave evidence as an expert witness to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Bruce Sounes, the lead architect on the Grenfell refurbishment project for now-dissolved firm Studio E, displayed virtually no knowledge of fire safety when cross-examined at the inquiry.

He admitted being unaware of important industry guidance on fire safety and was not familiar with key terms such as "limited combustibility", while arguing that it was up to consultants and building control officers to ensure compliance.

Architecture practice Studio E specified a combustible polyisocyanurate foam insulation product for Grenfell Tower, in breach of building regulations. The insulation produced cyanide-infused smoke when it burned on the night of the fire.

This insulation was selected as Studio E pursued a level of thermal efficiency well above building regulations requirements.

Hyett criticised Studio E for its confidence in the foam insulation in his report to the inquiry, calling it "an ongoing and major failure on their part to understand both the requirements of the building regulations and the guidance".

"Much more emphasis placed on design aesthetics"

"Within my own profession [...] there has of late been much more emphasis placed on design aesthetics and the perceived elegance, 'richness' and efficiency of the planning, spatial organisation and appearance of buildings, than on technical aspects of design, particularly as they relate to safety of the building in use," Hyett's report added.

Other fire safety experts also told Dezeen they were concerned about the level of training on fire safety that student architects receive.

"I've heard that in an architecture degree you get half a day on fire safety," said White, a fire engineer and fire safety consultant.

"If you asked Joe Public whether an architect understands fire safety, they'd say yes," she added. "If you asked whether you'd think they would know how to make a building meet the relevant regulations they would say yes. But that is not always the case now."

The lack of education is leading to a culture of architects overlooking the importance of fire safety, argued architectural technologist and fire engineer Peacock.

"I definitely think it is to do with culture," she said. "I think the problem begins at university. When I did my degree there was not really anything about fire safety, and my view on this is that all architecture degrees should have a whole module on fire safety."

London Architecture School (LSA) chief executive Neal Shasore questioned whether educational institutions are giving the Grenfell Tower fire enough prominence in their curriculums.

"The lessons from Grenfell are absolutely fundamental," he told Dezeen. "And one wonders whether it is being looked at a little bit in silos, where actually it should be part of all the really big questions that we as educators and as institutions are trying to grapple with, and I don't hear that a lot."

The LSA is working on a new post-qualification fire education programme. The first pilot courses are set to run later this year.

"We will focus on the principles of fire safety design, on statute regulation and guidance, but also some of the political and philosophical and historical cultural dimensions of the issue," Shasore said.

"If we get it right, it won't just be about competence, it will be about excellence, and the course will become a way of creating advocates for whatever further regulatory changes or cultural changes we might need."

Grenfell Tower Inquiry suspended over coronavirus
Today marks five years since the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in 2017

However, Hyett believes that the UK architecture profession has taken the issue of fire safety seriously since Grenfell.

"I think the profession was enormously affected by the tragedy," he said. Big practices have taken it very seriously and that runs through the smaller practices. But there is too great a division between 'practice' and academia. That too is wrong."

Jane Duncan, founder of Jane Duncan Architects and chair of the RIBA expert panel on fire safety, noted that the institute now requires practicing architects to undertake fire safety training as part of Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

"I think architects in the main are taking this seriously, and the RIBA have restructured their members' core CPD requirements to set safety at the forefront of design," she told Dezeen. "We will need to do some very serious CPD."

But White questioned whether CPD alone will be enough. "I do have concerns about whether self-directed CPD hours are sufficient," she said.

"There is a real danger that you don't know what you don't know – you learn the basics and gain the false impression that you know more than you do."

The top photo is by Narain Jashanmal.

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