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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Grenfell: questions for engineering ethics

The awful inferno that killed an as yet unknown number of people in Grenfell Tower on Wednesday needs no introduction.

Building things, particularly technically difficult things like high rise buildings, is what the engineering profession prides itself on. The safety of the public is the highest priority of every engineer. No question.

The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was, amongst other things, an engineering project. The engineering profession is central to setting building standards and providing technical advice to policy makers. Something has gone horribly wrong.

We hear from the contractor that they met all relevant standards. We await the full details to emerge during the investigations and inquiry, but on first hearing this response implies that an engineer's only obligation is to uphold the law. It is not. Our ethical duty is to keep the public safe. We are professionally obliged to put safety first, especially when clients or bosses are urging a cheaper option.

It is also our professional duty to be knowledgable about the state-of-the-art in our field. Contractors and consultants working on tower block cladding should have known about safety concerns and previous fires associated with these materials and systems, in London and in other parts of the world. That knowledge should have informed a thorough risk assessment and fire modelling, no matter what the minimum standards require. The modelling should have informed design and materials choices. Failure to insist on such work, particularly to keep costs down, would be a further breach of ethics and professionalism.

This is not just a failure of individuals and firms. As a profession we need to ask more searching questions.

If individual engineers have been raising concerns about these materials, what did their professional bodies and representatives do to make them clear to government?

How have we allowed building standards to slip so badly? Have we been complicit in allowing safety to become politicised? What have we done to stand up to vociferous 'health and safety gone mad' degregulators? Have we been strong enough in countering an ideology that believes that regulations must not hinder profitability?

Why have we been silent about the crisis in social housing and the safety implications of cost cutting, value engineering, poor maintenance, and unfeasibly low refurbishment budgets? Is it because we rely on contracts from social housing providers? Have we been too willing to bend to the pressures of these clients? Have we done enough to help our social housing clients resist and change government policy that has shown willful neglect for decades?

Some of this may sound political. Some will argue that housing policy is a matter for democratic politics, not engineering ethics. It may be. But when housing policy and deregulation leads to neglect and incompetence to the point where the public is no longer safe, it is time for engineers to step up. For the residents of Grenfell Tower and their families, too many of us were too slow in getting to our feet.

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