The above video (a 1984 documentary) is worth viewing* for the insight it offers into short-term thinking. (*Approximately 50 minutes)
Some years ago, on a new development of private housing (constructed in about 1993), a friend decided to update the bathroom at his house. I offered to help but he said he could manage by himself. After disconnecting the plumbing and removing some surrounding tiling, he discovered that the only way to remove the bath itself would be to first hack out part of the block-work on the side wall of the bathroom. We concluded that the bath had been installed before the bathroom walls had been constructed.
I used to live on the same development as that friend and exchanged contracts for a new home after the foundations were in, but before the house was built. I had never bought or lived in a brand new house before but a year before renting a modern home and discovering the joy of moving in and switching on without needing to do weeks or months of refurbishment (as in all my former habitats) had inspired. For our pre-completion inspection the site foreman showed my wife and I around our new home: he pointed out a few items that he spotted unfinished and assured us would be done before completion. He asked if we had any questions otherwise and were we satisfied. I don’t do structural surveys for other people, so I didn’t let on I had any knowledge. During the inspection, I’d been making some notes so I presented him with a long list of defects and shoddy workmanship, several pages. I do not think he was amused. He refused to let me test the central heating system. Before completion, all the work had been done.
Others were not so lucky. A near neighbour discovered that the cold water tap in his garage emitted hot water only. Nearby, a buyer, himself a builder, found that the roof line was not sitting neatly on top of the front elevation cavity wall so he insisted a rebuild. Imagine: move into brand new house, a few days later scaffolding, very impressive! Someone else, whilst redecorating the exterior of his house, discovered that some window cills were missing. After a while I stopped asking around about the complaints because I was finding it awkward to say that we hadn’t any.
Later on, when we had our garden partially-paved, the contractor told us he had been a sub-contractor for paving on the whole development. He told me that his ground works had been the only ones to pass the test of satisfaction first time.
The run-of-the-mill 1930s and late 19th century houses that are to be found in most places were mass-constructed, but the difference was that the building materials, usually solid brick walls, slate or tiled roofs, timber casement or metal framed windows, can be updated either by knowledgeable d-i-y or local builders. For repair and maintenance, it might be thought the same applies to modern construction were it not for a feature of new private housing estates amongst mass-market developers: the property has the appearance of a ‘house’ but behind-the-scenes fitting out to one’s taste is a ‘one performance only task, get it right first time’. The thickness, or should I say ‘thinness’, of the wall linings is such that any brackets for fittings (such as ceiling lights and curtain rails and window blinds) that dare come loose cannot be re-fixed easily. Inserting a raw-plug can disappear into the cavity. Gutters are not always affixed to gutter boards with more than one screw. Central heating systems are job lots typically obsolete models prone to fault and limited availability of spare parts. It is said that the shelf-life of a typical new housing estate is two mortgages, approximately 40-50 years. What happens after is anyone’s guess. Generally, for cheap and cheerful, a modern housing estate is enjoyable – until something goes wrong with the property including any fixtures or fittings it came with, whereupon what the eye sees what was previously unseen makes one wonder whether it was indeed money well spent.
For me, the tragedy of Grenfell Tower is not only the horrendous way in which human lives were lost but also in the aftermath – ‘cladding-gate’ – and what comes over as a complete indifference and utter shambles amongst the local councils in taking any interest in the concerns of residents. This is probably naivety on my part but somehow I have been led to believe that persons in authority can be trusted to do the decent thing. I realise there is difference between capital expenditure for the building and expenditure on future maintenance, but how can the word ‘care’ be applied to a commitment that cannot afford on-going maintenance and repair whenever needed by persons whose lives are affected by the disrepair. Considering how keen some councils are at chucking a ton of bricks and heavy fines onto miscreant private landlords, one would think their own houses would be in order, a shining example of what is expected.
I suspect, since this has not been made public (at least not in anything I read or listen to), that the covert reason for owners of tower blocks urgency checking safety and carrying out fire risk assessment is at the insistence of their insurers. Insurance companies aim to minimise the risk to them of pay-outs so wield a great deal of power for compliance with the small print in policies. For landlords and owners of properties that are not involved in the outcry, there will be no escape: it is likely that claims are going to be scrutinised more than ever.