Thoughts on the Grenfell Fire, and “Trusted Advisors”

The cause of the June 14, 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London became readily apparent within a few days. A defective refrigerator in a fourth floor apartment caught fire, rapidly igniting flammable materials on the outside walls of the building. Within minutes, the exterior was engulfed in flames as fire spread from one floor to the next, not through the floor structure, but outside the building.[i] It was the most deadly fire in Britain in over a century.[ii] 

Although there had been several previous well-publicized fires involving the use of non-fire-rated aluminum composite panels[iii], local codes governing the Grenfell Tower allowed the use of products such as non-fire-resistant core aluminum composite material (ACM) panels for the entire exterior. In the US, our codes require fire-resistant (FR) core ACM panels above forty feet from grade.[iv] It appears that the manufacturer of the Grenfell Towers ACM material describes when to use FR core panels differently when talking to US consumers, British consumers, or European/Middle East consumers.[v] It could be that the architect correctly designed the recladding of the residential block based on an understanding of the relevant codes and the information provided by the manufacturer. It is likely the contractor installed the work exactly as detailed and specified. Maybe none of the entities involved with the project did anything wrong – they may have been following code and well-accepted business practice for their locality.

 

Yet the tragedy raises troubling questions of professional ethics for designers and specifiers, for code officials and government agencies, for building owners and managers, and for manufacturers and product representatives. If for example, you are an architect today designing to the applicable code in London and you know about the other similar fires, would your judgment be that a high-rise design should include FR panels even though they are not code required? Is it your professional and ethical obligation to inform your client that non-FR panels could create a catastrophic situation in the event of a fire? Or would you and your client assume “designing to meet code” is good enough? Codes are mandated minimums but owners and their designers often elect to design beyond code requirements. 

What factors would drive a decision to exceed code? Economics? The more you spend on building low-income housing, the fewer people can be housed, so there is an ethical element to maximizing efficiency and minimizing cost. But what level of frugality exceeds the acceptable risk to life safety? When does ethics enter into it? Do architects, and owners for that matter, have an ethical responsibility to the tenants of the building? If so, how far does it go? Dealing with the value of a human life is an unfortunate reality that manufacturers, insurers, and courts grapple with every day.

 

Many rhetorical questions are at play here. Having spent a long architectural career culminating in three years as a specifier for a product manufacturer, I am interested in the questions involving relationships between architects and product representatives. At CSI, we preach the warm and fuzzy concept of product representative as “Trusted Advisor,” the thrust of which is to disabuse architects of the idea that the product rep is a mere salesperson. We often hear anecdotes about reps turning down today’s sale of an inappropriate product and gaining the architect’s long-term trust. He or she looks out for the architect’s interests and therefore can be trusted. Within CSI, it is hard to find a dissenter to the Trusted Advisor exemplar.

 

Perhaps we can believe that for most projects and for most of the time, having a trustworthy CSI-buddy product rep is the quickest and most effective way a harried architect can get up to speed on a new or unknown product. At best, the interest of the architect and that of the product rep converge (e.g., “We’re working together for the best possible result for the owner”). Sometimes the goals do not match, but do not conflict: the rep (“Use my product”) and the architect (“Look at my cool design”) want different things, but neither goal adversely impacts the project or the owner’s goals (“House the working poor in my neighborhood”). But what happens in the worst case when the goals of the architect and the product rep diverge and conflict? The Trusted Advisor model falls apart.

 

To what extent should architects when making critical product selections rely on Trusted Advisor advice? In the Grenfell fire example, the manufacturer used different language in different regions of their global marketing when talking about their products. Does the manufacturer have an ethical obligation to reveal the same pertinent information to all architects everywhere, or is the manufacturer’s obligation to its stockholders? Say only what you need to say to sell (as long as it is not overtly dishonest), and tailor that pitch to the specific needs of the region? It is undisputed that the architect – not the manufacturer – is responsible for understanding and designing to the code. And a product representative, whether an employee or an agent, owes allegiance to the manufacturer over whatever loyalty is owed to the architect by virtue of the Trusted Advisor role.

 

How do my fellow CSI-member architects approach this issue? Do you independently verify that what your Trusted Advisor has told you is actually true and pertinent to your product selection role and code compliance responsibility? Do you have concerns when talking to your local rep about a project in a totally different area of the world that conditions and code requirements might be totally different? Are you aware that even the CSI-colleague you have relied on for thirty years might at some point have totally divergent interests from yours? Are you letting a history of friendly relationships contravene your professional and ethical responsibility to protect your clients’ interest?

 

To my fellow CSI-member product representatives, how do you act when your loyalty as a Trusted Advisor conflicts with your loyalty as an employee or agent? Can you really guarantee to an architect that you will always put his or her interests above your own or those of your manufacturer? Is there a difference in your ability to be totally open with the architect when the project under discussion is one small auto dealer as opposed to when it is re-cladding a hundred high rise towers? Does the Grenfell tragedy make you want to be more or less forthcoming with owners and designers as it relates to your understanding of your product’s code-related capabilities?

 

And perhaps most importantly, to CSI staff and leadership: have we over-sold the idea of Trusted Advisor? What happens when the interests of the Trusted Advisor and the interests of the architect diverge? I did a quick search of some of the webinars and programs CSI has done in the past and could not find any mention of this issue. It appears we are not making architects and designers aware of the fallacy of over-reliance on the Trusted Advisor model. We are not making product representatives aware that they should be open with architects about potential divergences. We need to emphasize this so that both sides understand their interests will not always coincide. 

 

Please do not misunderstand the intent of this article. CSI has done great good in presenting product representatives as valued team members in the project delivery process. In my career, I have seen the status of product representatives rise dramatically. Few in our industry would question the professionalism of a CSI-member product rep, much less that of a CCPR. But we owe it to our constituency to be straightforward about the limitations in our legal, ethical, and professional relationships when we define what it means to be a Trusted Advisor. We fail our members when we oversell the concept; we succeed when we honestly assess the risks and make those risks clearly known to our members.

 

Tragedies such as the Grenfell fire horrify humanity. But to the part of humanity making a living as construction professionals, these tragedies also raise thought provoking questions that, if answered wisely, have the power to improve the way we all practice our professions.


 

[i] Kirkpatrick, David D., Hakim Danny, and Glanz James. "Why Grenfell Tower Burned: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety." The New York Times 24 June 2017: 1. Print.

[ii] EM-DAT: The Emergency Events Database - Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) - CRED, D. Guha-Sapir - www.emdat.be, Brussels, Belgium.

[iii] Refer to Lakanal House, London, July 2009; Lacrosse Building, Melbourne, November 2014; The Address Downtown, Dubai, January 2016 for three recent examples of fires in high rises with ACM cladding.

[iv] "Chapter 14 Exterior Walls." International Building Code 2012. Country Club Hills, IL: International Code Council, 2014. Print. The 2015 version of the code is substantively equivalent to the referenced version.

[v] Kirkpatrick, et al, 2. 

George A. Everding, FCSI CCS CCCA AIA, now retired, spent forty years as an architect, including three years as a specifier and product representative for a manufacturer. The views expressed in this article are his, and do not necessarily represent those of the Greater St. Louis Chapter of CSI.

 

 

 

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