Blinkered energy efficiency focus brings death and dispair

Grenfell Tower fire (wider view)

This tragic fire has been attributed to a faulty fridge freezer and the cladding that was put onto the building. So how could a simple electrical fault cause the deaths of so many and strike fear into many more living in and around tower blocks in the UK?

We have been on a drive for the past few years to reduce carbon emissions. This is laudable as climate change is bar far the biggest threat facing the natural world. However, this drive has been blinkered. We have dumbed down the issue to one of carbon and carbon alone. Governments and industry like this, as they think that it can be a. measured and b. profitable. However, when you are purely focused on cutting carbon emissions you miss out on the beautiful complexity of life and the systems that surround, and are embedded into, it.

At Grenfell, the problem that was overlooked was fire risk. What happens when you cover a building with a flammable covering and you don’t fit fire breaks? Well, we all know what can happen now. So what went wrong? Well one of the key issues, that underpin so much of the construction industry, is that or testing and specification. Many of our testing regimes are old, tired and not fit for purpose. They are rarely updated or questioned as entire industries are built on them. Companies have developed products that meet the basic test levels and they don’t want to go through the cost of having to change these and make better ones. The complexity of the industrial structure also allows these factors to get lost. Main contractors, sub contractors, system suppliers, building control, planning etc all have their say and it makes it very easy for key things to be assumed rather than checked and insisted upon. The focus in the process is money and time, not quality. We await to hear the findings and recommendations, but one can predict that pinning this onto one party will be difficult / impossible as really it is the whole capitalist system is in the dock and no-one in power wants to find that guilty!

This can be seen to full effect in Fishwick, Preston. Never heard of it? Not surprising as the whole debacle is being covered over by the Government and Industry. 387 homes had External Wall Insulation (EWI) fitted, again for all the best intentions. All have failed. 100% failure. Now each of these homes has mould and damp problems.

In this instance it appears (believe me you have to know how and where to dig to get any information on this whatsoever) that the EWI used was one of the standard products. However, against all the advice of groups like the STBA and the BRE (i.e. those people who know about this stuff), they slapped this EWI onto traditional solid walled properties. Now on paper this is fine. The whole industry thinks that this is standard practice and they even offer a ‘warranty’ to go along with it (this is of course a complete waste of time and not worth the paper it is written on – ask CIVALLI (

The trouble is that the moisture test that the whole industry is based on is fundamentally wrong! The standard even says that it will not work in in-situ conditions. It only looks at water vapour in a one dimensional manner. Last time I looked water came in liquid and solid form as well as vapour. Water also appears to have the ability to go both in and out of a structure. It even has the audacity to move sideways. So the whole industry is based on a one dimensional world with only one state of existence. I think that even the least enlightened know that the world is not quite like that. However, all the technical decisions about insulation is based on these tests. No wonder that Fishwick went wrong. They must have three dimensions, water and ice up there! Who is going to pay for this? Well, I will let you make up your own minds whether it will be the contractor, the ‘insurance’ industry or the tax payer.

So, if you have 3 dimensions where you live and / or it rains or freezes at any time then you too might face similar issues.

If we are to avoid Grenfells and Fishwicks (and the many others that exist – these are just the biggies) then we have to be smarter. We have to use the right tests to get answers that might actually happen in the real world. We have to realise that the world is a complex and interlinked place. What we do in the name of carbon reduction has other implications. It can cause fire spread, it can cause mould and damp issues, it can cause structural failure, it can cause health problems……. It also can have its benefits, of course, in many cases we are able to reduce emissions and make homes warmer etc, but there is not much point doing this to the properties where we ruin them in the process! This is very much the situation for solid walled and narrow cavity properties (these make up around 35% of our building stock!)

The STBA and others have been saying for many years now that we have to look at things in the round; holistically. We also have to understand how products work in the REAL world, not just on a bench in a testing laboratory. we have to take this knowledge and apply it to each individual case. One size fits all is blatantly false. We have to use our skills and experience wisely, not just follow outdated and inappropriate testing regimes. Unfortunately this goes against the common thinking that the construction industry needs to be dumbed down so that even the least educated can get jobs in it. We should celebrate the fact that our building stock is varied and complex and train our crafts people and professionals appropriately. Some people have the knowledge on how to do this right (and hence do it once), but do we get a look in? The inertia and power of the mainstream industry is enormous and they don’t want any boats rocked thank you very much.

So, we know how to avoid Grenfells and Fishwicks, but Government doesn’t want to listen to the voices of reason and truth. It wants easy solutions that address the needs of now, so it turns to Industry for answers. The whole of the Each Home Counts review (that references Preston / Fishwick) is being run by Industry. It doesn’t fill one with joy and hope. We really do need to wake up to see how the system works and who it actually works for.

I am not a do-nothing type of person, I agree that we need to do the right things and address the issues like climate change, BUT we have to be clever and learn from mistakes, not cover them up. We need to make it easy for people to use their homes in a less carbon intensive manner, this might be using EWI, but we need to use the right materials in the right way otherwise we are just going to have to do it all over again in the future. That is a waste of time, money, resources and carbon!

I might have a rant now about modern buildings: It is accepted that ALL new homes (yes the ones that the House Builders are building now) will all need retrofitting for energy efficiency in the future. What are we doing people???? Can’t we see that Redrow, Wimpey, …. all need to be told to build carbon negative homes NOW? Trouble is Government is too weak in the face of big business. It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

Knowledge is power. We need to get the answers to Fishwick out in the open. We need to ask questions of our politicians, we need to question the integrity and focus of industry, we need to demand proper recompense for mistakes in the construction industry, we need to act within the constraints of fairly allocated planetary resources. We are effectively been trodden on by uncontrolled capitalism in pursuit of the free market. Well the free market only seeks profit. We need to demand proper controls from the Government (who are after all elected by the people for the people) so that we and the planet are put on a level par with profit. Only then can the three pillars of sustainability truly start to exist.

Economics, Environment and Society must all be treated equally.