Published On: Tue, Jan 24th, 2023

Ensuring homes are a safe place to live in

The relationship between homes and the safety of residents has been brought into the spotlight again. As the Grenfell Tower inquiry closed, Richard Millett KC, counsel to the inquiry, made a chilling closing statement that stated that “each and every one of the deaths that occurred in Grenfell Tower was avoidable.” He emphasised this by accusing every organisation involved in the refurbishment of “spinning a web of blame, denying responsibility despite evidence of incompetence, malpractice and dishonesty.”  Just as the inquiry was closing, we learnt of another tragedy, this time in Rochdale, where two-year old Awaab Ishak died from the direct result of black mould in the flat he lived – caused by a lack of effective ventilation.  

Both these cases highlighted the importance of Building Regulations and the important role building materials have in protecting the inhabitants of buildings. Products that are fit for purpose and that are installed correctly, adhering to effective Building Regulations, are the minimum requirement a homeowner should expect. The tragic case in Rochdale revolved around the key issue of ventilation. The flat was poorly ventilated, with no window in the bathroom and a window in the kitchen that led to a communal walkway. The recent debate in the fenestration industry surrounding the Approved Document Part F of the Building Regulations is very relevant to the case in Rochdale. Part F requires trickle vents to be installed in all new windows and doors, with the legislation designed to reduce the build-up of moisture, condensation and mould in buildings. This was introduced earlier in the year and many in the industry suggested this requirement would go against moves to make homes more energy efficient and would put more financial pressure on consumers at a time when energy costs are soaring. At the same time Document L was attempting to make windows and doors more energy efficient by ensuring less heat escapes, while Document F was helping to provide additional ventilation for homes. To add to the contradictory nature of the regulations, it was suggested that in certain areas, residential developments would have to be fitted with windows up to 60% smaller than elsewhere in the UK to comply with proposed regulations to control overheating in new homes. It leaves a regulatory nightmare. We shouldn’t be giving residents and, often, tenants, a choice between living in a warm or damp home that can have devastating effects on their health. 

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Housing, has a reputation for action and has been forthright in his condemnation of the Chief Executive of the housing provider to the Ishak family in Rochdale – describing it as an “unacceptable tragedy”. By all accounts, he is keen to tackle the problems in the housing market head-on, including those associated with poor-quality materials. Addressing a recent audience at the Centre for Policy Studies, he stated: “We will use all the powers we have, including call-in powers, in order to make sure that developments which are not aesthetically of high quality don’t go ahead. So many of our volume housebuilders use a restricted pattern book with poor-quality materials, and the aesthetic quality of what they produce is both disappointing and also not in keeping with high aesthetic standards that may already exist. That is a reason why communities say no. They do not want ugliness to be imposed on them.” He added: “We will see the wide adoption of design codes and ways in which individuals can appreciate how it is easier to secure planning permission if you build in a way that is consistent with those design codes.”

As an industry we have a responsibility to ensure homes are safe places to live in and this is down to the products we design and the way we install them. It is also important to add product aesthetics into the mix, as it appears this will be a future consideration for more and more new housing developments. It is however a careful balancing act, demonstrated by the case in Rochdale and the numerous mistakes made surrounding refurbishments at Grenfell. Building products are not just material items, they are elements in homes that can greatly safeguard inhabitants. We are hopefully reaching a pivotal turning point with the realisation of the impact the right products can make. We can only hope that the construction sector will learn from its mistakes. 

John CowieEditor