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Tall Buildings chair on Grenfell: 'We can't just look at one issue'

The investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire must consider all aspects of the building’s design and construction, the incoming chair of the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has said.

Steve Watts, partner at cost consultant Alinea, is set to take over as global chair of the CTBUH – the first person from the UK to take on the role since the organisation was founded in 1969.

Speaking exclusively to Construction News, Mr Watts said the industry “can’t just look at one issue” when it comes to investigating what went wrong at Grenfell.

“The one thing that annoys me about [the Grenfell debate] is the noise out there and people making pretty outrageous statements based on no facts whatsoever,” he said.

“Cladding is a major issue, and we need to review that, but that’s only part of it.

“It’s the whole way the building has been designed, and whether Building Regulations are correct – I don’t know the answer to that.”

CTBUH has established a fire and facades working group to investigate potential issues with facades on tall buildings and how they contribute to fire safety, with its representatives coming from multiple disciplines in countries around the world.

This international perspective will provide unique insight into the debate, Mr Watts said.

“One of the things we’re doing that few others are doing is looking at it from an international perspective,” he said.

“It’s a tragedy, we need to establish what went wrong and put that right – but it’s not the first time this has happened.

“It happened in this country back in 2009 at Lakanal House.

“And elsewhere in the world, there have been at least three fires that I know about in tall buildings in Dubai.

“The fires were probably just as serious, but very few people died and the numbers injured were relatively small compared to Grenfell.”

Mr Watts also expressed concern at the public perception of the safety of tall buildings, and hoped that the CTBUH can play a role in helping to provide reassurance.

“We still haven’t established [exactly] how many people have died and that simple fact alone is unacceptable, whatever the cause of those deaths,” he said.

“When you talk to family and friends as part of the industry, and as a specialist on tall buildings, to explain that is very difficult.”

Mr Watts commented on the large number of high-rise buildings proposed for construction in London, at various stages of concept design, planning or construction.

He said: “The numbers out there are high numbers, that’s for sure, whatever stage those buildings are at.

“But I think the real issue is the residential towers – if those numbers are correct, can the market really sustain that number of high-quality, high-value residential towers?

“I think the public have very logical concerns about whether these buildings will become fully or partly occupied.

“They’re a valid part of the market, but the greater challenges [around housing] require a different answer, and tall buildings may or may not be part of that solution.

“We want to promote sensible debate about it, gather the right people in that debate and encourage the right building.”

He also said he believed tall building clusters represented an effective planning solution, such as the one seen on the eastern edge of the City of London, and that “the pepper-potting of tall buildings without reference to a strategic plan that covers that area is problematic”.

Mr Watts will officially succeed current chairman David Malott at the CTBUH 2017 Australia Conference in October.

He has worked on a number of tall buildings in London and internationally, including the Leadenhall Building, the Shard and 22 Bishopsgate.

He has been the council’s UK representative since 2009 and helped to set up the formal CTBUH UK chapter which he has chaired since 2015.

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