Grenfell Tower Tragedy – Blame The Process

Following the tragedy that took place at Grenfell tower recently resulting in the loss of many lives, it didn’t take long before fingers started pointing blame at main contractor Rydon Homes, the subcontractor responsible for the cladding, the mechanical subcontractor for the for the gas solenoid valve not shutting off when it should and although the public and the families affected in particular deserve answers to the cause, social media has allowed rumours to spread faster and created so much noise, that nobody is really any wiser as to what happened.

The fact of the matter is, the general public will never understand the full extent of the issue because its the result of an ever so common construction industry process of “selling boxes” and this is still happening every day on almost every project.

So, instead of trying to point the blame at one particular hard working contractor by exposing Facebook photos of them on holiday with their family, which could be extremely damaging to their livelihood, lets take a look at what box he was selling what we mean by “selling boxes”.

Let’s take a look at what REALLY happens during the construction process every day.

First the client/landlord/council will take out their cheque book and pay a team of architects, public health consultants, land registry experts and mechanical consultants.
They are tasked with producing a “base specification”.
This specification is usually very broad, very open and can be interpreted many different ways due to the ambiguity within the document.
They are normally extremely subjective, but the purpose of the specification is to say “These are the standards and regulations in each area of the build that you must abide by”.
What are these consultants doing? They are selling their box. They are writing a document (most of which is often copied from previous projects to save time) and then they are selling that document. That’s it. Their box is sold.

The client thinks they are covered as the process moves to the next step.
This is where that performance specification is then sent out to a number of design consultants to tender for the creation of the specific design specification for that project.

The design specification will include the design calculations of air, water, capacity for fire escapes, structural loadings and the equipment to be used on the project such as light fittings, plant, ceilings, cladding, general fabrics and many times they will nominate their favoured certified specialists to carry out the specialist services such as fire alarms, security, IT, controls, CCTV etc.

Now each of the consultants that are tendering for this project are all trying to sell their box; the creation of a design specification.

How can they be in with a good chance of winning the project? The aim for them is to provide a high value service at a competitive cost just like everyone else in the industry.
So how can they keep their costs as low as possible?
Here’s where it starts to get messy.
The first thing they may do is copy and paste most of the content from an existing specification that bares a resemblance to this project.
The specification they are copying could be a year old, it could be 10 years old and its not uncommon to see a section of the specification that is quite blatantly unrelated to the project but it was simply left in from a previous one.
So by copying most of the text from an existing document, this saves time and money.

The next thing they may do is specify certain products and services that they have used before without doing their regular due diligence on the companies to ensure they are keeping up to date with the ever changing regulations and standards.
Why would they? Well, it could be argued that this is part of their responsibility as the design consultant but we see too often the name of a certain product or company being nominated simply through laziness, lack of time or even a game of golf that a supplier had entertained them on.
But surely if the consultant is to nominate a certain company, they should at least brief the company on the project beforehand and ensure they are capable to meet the requirements and demands of the project?
Well what box is the consultant selling? It’s a document! Nothing more.
To avoid having to interview these companies and doing all the leg work in order to have absolute faith that they are proposing the best products and services for the project, they will instead insert a phase in the specification such as “The fire alarm specialist shall be Mr John Doe of Company X Ltd” followed by the words “OR EQUAL AND APPROVED”.
So rather than do the due diligence themselves, they leave it open for the contractor to nominate their OWN golfing buddies!

Why do they do this? Because if they were to do the leg work, leg work costs time and money which will increase the cost of THEIR box!
Think about it like this, if a car manufacturer stated that if you want to buy our car, you MUST use a certain tyre manufacturer because we have carried out years of extensive research & development and we have found after vigorous testing that these tyres will ensure your car lasts longer than any other car on the market but because of the research time and money we have spent on this, the cost of our car is 50% more expensive than our competition. What would that do to their sales?
They wouldn’t sell as many boxes (in this case, cars).
Then on the other hand, lets take Apple for example. They will ONLY honour their guarantee if their clients use the official Apple charger or certain products that have been approved by them.

Apple are on average 250% more expensive than their competitors yet they have the lowest consumer returns rate in their industry.

We have been nominated in many specifications in the past and the first time we will hear about the project is from the mouth of a contractor who rings the office and asks for our price! We would have had absolutely zero discussions about it with the consultant before hand and its because the consultant just wants to sell their box.

Now, the next phase is where the process really starts to lose control.
The most competitive consultant firm is awarded the project and the client/landlord/council pulls out the cheque book once again.
They may run this specification past the consultant that was hired to produce the performance specification IF there is money in the budget for it and then the specification is zipped up and sent out to multiple contractors for tender.

On a project the size of Grenfell Tower, its not uncommon for 5-10 main contractors to receive the tender documents for pricing.
This might not sound like too many seeing as you probably get 2-3 companies round when replacing the windows in your house but we are talking about Main contractors.
These are the builders. The big names you usually see on the hoardings or scaffold advertising around the building.
Although most of these big contractors are heavily focused on health and safety statistics, many of them are extremely ruthless when it comes to costs Why? Because they need to sell their box to feed the beast.
In order to ensure they have the best chance to secure the project, they will forward the tender documents to 5-10 mechanical and electrical contractors who will each have to forward on the tender to their subcontractors such as Pipe fitters, electricians, carpenters, IT specialists, Controls Engineers, Lift Engineers, Fire Alarm specialists, sprinkler system specialists, lifting companies and acoustic engineers. The list goes on.
Now we have an army of subcontractors fighting for the chance to work on the project by screwing down suppliers for wholesale cost and this is the most dangerous twist in the process, “Value Engineering”.
In order to get costs as low as possible, the contractors take it upon themselves to carry out their own value engineering.
Value engineering promotes the substitution of materials and methods with less expensive alternatives, WITHOUT sacrificing functionality.
However what this usually results in is most of the functionality being stripped out due to the misunderstanding of what “Value Engineering” actually means.

You can imagine how many companies are now trying to sell their box! And what we mean by “selling their box”, is that not one individual company has the slightest interest in how all parties are to integrate together or whether there may be a conflict on site during the project. They just want to sell boxes. Has any due diligence been carried out on all of these companies? The answer is almost definitely NO.
How could they have?
What’s more, it takes around 50 years for the implementation of a new regulation in the construction industry and yet technology shifts at an average rate of just 15 months. So with this said, and the fact that the contractors need to sell their box, they are not going to check every one of their suppliers are fully compliant with the specification.
They may ASK their suppliers if they are specification compliant but what do you think their suppliers answer to that question will be? YES! Of course. Anything to sell another box.
Most of the time, the good specialists will ask the mechanical and electrical contractors to request some information from the consultants to ensure that they can meet the requirements of the project but the contractors are more often than not frightened to go back to the consultant to ask questions as they think it will make them look incompetent and they want to sell their box so they just tell the specialist to do whatever they feel, after all, “YOU’RE THE SPECIALIST”.

So how does this affect the process? Well remember the vague line in the specification that states “EQUAL AND APPROVED”? Well the contractors see this as a green light to pick the cheapest of EVERY box seller and because the prices have been screwed so low, every company involved now has no incentive other than to get in, fit their box at a marginal profit (whether it fits properly or not) and then get out and move onto the next one.

So then the project gets awarded to the “team” who fight with each other continuously throughout the project as nothing has gone to plan because boxes don’t fit properly, some boxes didn’t come with features they were expecting, some boxes even break because they realise there was not enough money in the price to use extra strong box tape and EVENTUALLY the project comes to an “end”.

Cue the consultants team who wrote the original specification to come back to site and check the standards and functionality of the installation to ensure out meets the EQUAL AND APPROVED quality. But what’s that? Does the consultant even know?

The consultant gets defensive because they realise that they are now responsible (or their public indemnity insurance is) for signing off on this project that could quite easily be nothing like what the paying client was expecting.
So what they do is defer signing off on completion for as long as possible by creating a snag list. If you have ever played monopoly, this is like a “get out of jail free card”.

They then tell the main contractor that they had only allowed for 2 visits upon completion to sign off the project within their cost and they explain that every visit after that is going to cost them an astronomical day rate.

At this point, the main contractor threatens to pass the costs down the line to the contractors who then pass down to their sub contractors and instead of concentrating on getting the snags complete and getting paid, the main contractor will tell the mechanical and electrical team that they are no longer paying the original price quoted for the works and they make “take it or leave it” deductions and the supply chain starts to break under tension.
Profit margins are strangled and the pressure is on to get snags completed.
Boxes are taped up, some boxes are decorated in pretty wrapping, some boxes that didn’t fit are sometimes thrown away in the hope that no one asks where they are.
By this point, there is no money left to pay the consultant to come back.
We have worked closely with many consultants who have been in the industry for over 30 years and they have openly told us that they have NEVER signed a project off!

So how do these projects cross the line? Well believe it or not, it ends up with some snags being completed and the client will move into the property.
During the first year to two years, the client will log complaints regarding issues they have found within the property and a retention of money is held until the issues are addressed. The problem now is that the only issues that are addressed are ones raised by the untrained eye of the client.
There is no specialist engineer involved anymore and the main contractor just wants to get off the job to get paid the retention.

But what HAS been left behind? What lurks behind the walls? What did the client pay for? How much of what they paid for got installed and how much of it lined the pockets of another golfing trip?
What lessons have been learnt? Many actually. But will it be different on the next project? NO. Because each company wants to sell the box they specialise in and nothing more.

Why is it that in the last ten years, people have educated themselves on how to book flights using their phone and manage their bank account over the internet and yet when it comes to going that extra mile to ensure the chance of longevity and sustainability of their brand stands strong, they aren’t collectively working together and embracing collaboration and innovation?

Now there will be a long investigation to try and pin the blame on someone. Was it the cladding? What is the installation of the cladding? Was it the gas valve not shutting?

The fact is its the process that’s wrong.
We were all taught in school “process over outcome”.
Get the process right and the correct outcome is inevitable.

At Gemco, we believe that by being completely transparent and educating our clients with an unbiased application solution, coupled with an incomparable high standard, we will shift the industry slowly but surely and its because our ONLY goal is to deliver what the client wants. A safe and reliable solution.

Money was created for fair exchange and if you are providing a solution that satisfies the demand of the client, then the cost will be accepted and there will be no issue.
The problem today is that no one is monitoring the fair exchange and checking what’s inside the boxes everyone is selling.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this tragedy. Please leave your comments below and engage in the discussion.

Gemco are offering a FREE safety and compliance survey to ALL residential and commercial properties. The survey comprises of a full status validation and report on the existing control system to ensure the installation meets regulations.