Disaster by Design: why good design is imperative
The harrowing Grenfell Tower fire in London has made design a hot-button political issue in the United Kingdom. The blaze, which engulfed a 24-storey public housing block in North Kensington in the early hours of June 14, caused at least 80 fatalities, with a definitive death toll that will probably not be known until 2018.
On top of that, survivors have been left homeless, as authorities struggle to secure housing for them in a costly and crowded metropolis. Londoners, journalists, and opposition MPs were all quick to ask how a small refrigerator fire could cause so much damage and what the destruction of low-income housing in one of the country’s most expensive boroughs signifies.
Grenfell has been called a man-made disaster caused by poor design decisions. Witnesses suspected that the aluminum panels cladding the tower exacerbated the fire; it’s since been confirmed that the cladding added in recent renovations was made of a flammable material banned in parts of Europe and the US.
Inside the building, fire safety features were minimal; there was no building-wide alarm or sprinkler and only one exit staircase. In fact, Grenfell residents repeatedly voiced concerns about fire risks and inadequate emergency exits. In a blog post from November 2016, the Grenfell Action Group warned that ‘only a catastrophic event’ could bring the required attention to these issues.
That tower residents were working-class (including refugees and people of colour) has brought the issue of urban inequality to the fore. Critics have accused authorities of consciously allowing conditions at Grenfell to deteriorate in order to drive residents out of the coveted Kensington real estate, what writer Richard Seymour called “negligence by design.”
The dangerous cladding was installed not just to cut costs (leaked emails allege the switch in materials saved £293,000 of a £8.6 million bill) but also to improve views from nearby luxury flats. Planning documents reveal that concerns raised in meetings between the planners and contractors “did not relate to safety but design issues, including the colour.”
Of course, safety IS a design issue. Speaking to Dezeen, a number of architects blamed the tragedy on the culture of cost-cutting and value-stripping in UK construction. Paul Karakusevic, an expert on public housing, says that sound design is too often undermined by the pursuit of profit. "Deregulation, modern procurement practices and recent government housing policy have all conspired here," echoed Neil Deely.
The problem has proven endemic- all of the nearly 200 tower blocks tested for flammability since the Grenfell Tower fire have failed flammability tests. Police are investigating the factors behind the disaster and considering manslaughter charges. The beleaguered Tory government, still ailing from the snap election, has asked critics not to “politicize” the event. But as Suzanne Moore of the Guardian put it: “The prioritising of saving a few thousand pounds over saving many lives was a political choice.” Design IS political.
Disasters caused by human action or neglect can be as destructive as the most powerful natural devastation. What is the role of design in avoiding, or managing disasters? And how can design help those affected by man-made disasters and emergencies through policy, infrastructure, and improved means of communication and aid? Designers need to understand their impact in socio-economic and political contexts.
How can designers bring forth solutions and tools for understanding in such complex emergencies? You can answer these questions and challenge design to do better at the World Design Congress this October.
#101 Man-made disasters
#102 Socio-economic and political contexts