Centralized Procurement – Was the Tragedy of the Grenfell Tower Avoidable?

On June 14, 2017 eighty people died and 500 residents were left homeless when a fire broke out at the Grenfell Tower in London England.

The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower is still under investigation, but preliminary reports suggest that this tragedy occurred (at least in part) because of an exterior panel covering the building from top to bottom.

The suspected panel was used as part of an approved materials substitution.  The contractor substituted the originally specified panel to a less expensive one from the same manufacturer.  The substitution saved the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation £293,000.

In terms of materials costs, reports say the cheaper panel is said to have been £2 a square metre (or £5,000) less expensive.

I know this is a morbid way to start to this article, but I wanted to get your attention so we can discuss whether anything could have been done to avoid this tragedy.

First, let me point you to an article from Colin Cram.  Mr. Cram is a public sector consultant specializing in procurement who has been promoting centralized procurement within the public sector.

Mr. Cram reasons that small housing authorities like the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation lack the resources to retain procurement experts knowledgeable enough to recognize good value engineering options from bad ones.

Mr. Cram suggests that a centralized procurement agency could share the costs of specialized category experts across multiple public sector agencies.  His concept would allow for experts to be available on-demand when needed without burdening these smaller groups with the cost and overhead of staffing.

Mr. Cram also cites that such arrangements would further benefit the public at large by eliminating the potential for fraud and collusion which exists at local levels.

This notion certainly would save money and reduce the risk of fraud, but could it have prevented the Grenfell tragedy?

At Grenfell, the panels that were used were constructed with polyurethane core panels.  These panels are permitted by code in the UK.  The originally specified panels were polyethylene panels from the same manufacturer (Reynobond).

According to a recent report, there are 208 towers in the UK presently known to have these panels installed.

The prevalence of these panels suggests to me that the building community in the UK has accepted these products and has deemed them viable.  In addition, these panels are known to have wide acceptance and use in France, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia.

Only the US and Germany have banned these products, and even in the US, these panels may be used on towers that are under 40 feet high.

As such, the prevalence and acceptance of these panels are such that few if any construction professionals would be likely to object to such a substitution.

Even in the unlikely event that someone associated with the Grenfell Tower had enough knowledge of these panels to raise an objections, the fact that the panels were approved by the code and were widely used, would have made it unlikely that such concerns would have been heeded.

The impact of this tragedy is such that everyone would like to find a villain.  Conscientious observers like Mr. Cram point to ready solutions such as centralized procurement to prevent similar tragedies.

I hate that this happened and regret the loss of lives.  I really wish there was a single obvious villain here and that we could point to some simple solution that could prevent this from ever happening again.

The truth is that in construction, we rely on experience to educate us.  Building codes are nothing more than a combination of centuries of lessons learned from historical failures.  As early as the time of Vitruvius the principals of constructions have been compiled from our experiences.

New products can be tested and once approved, we rely on those tests and the experience of our codes to guide us in what is their best use.

The people involved in the Grenfell Tower made a financial decision.  It was a decision that has been made hundreds of times before.  These folks relied on the same codes that we all do to guide decisions.  Perhaps, the investigation will find some obvious culprit.  However, if this is what it seems to be, and the team at the Grenfell Tower acted in good faith, there will be no villain here.

As much as I would love to point to procurement expertise as a potential solution, I don’t believe anyone could have anticipated this tragedy.

We can all sit back and scrutinize the loss of life against what we see as meager savings, but at the time, with the information and experience available, the choice must have seemed reasonable.

I love Mr. Cram’s idea.  Centralized Procurement would make procurement expertise available to small government organizations, but I don’t think it would have mitigated the tragedy at Grenfell.

What do you think?  Was the Grenfell tragedy avoidable?  If so, is procurement the answer, or do you see another solution?

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