Building Safety — Excel Kills

We can’t spreadsheet our way out of this one

Image from the Artists for Grenfell website (possibly watercolour), of the area, pre-tragedy, with the tower in the centre.
https://artistsforgrenfell.com/

For decades now, building safety compliance has involved multiple stakeholders over the lifecycle of a building, from concept through occupation and eventual demolition-

  • Developers, agents, architects, contractors and others involved in the design and construction of buildings

That’s at least twenty-five types of stakeholder.

Unfortunately, the required information doesn’t so much flow between these parties as stop at each stage, until it is reactively cut/copied/paste and sent to the next. This transfer of information is usually as an attachment, meaning that each party in the chain will likely hold snippets of information in emails, isolated spreadsheets and files.

Every time information is passed from one party to the next, there is the potential for loss, error and fraud to enter the system. It is essentially no more sophisticated than writing it in a book and showing that book to the next in line, for them to write in their’s. There can be no confidence that they correlate and the weaknesses are compounded as the information moves through the system.

Then Grenfell happened

…and the consequence of these weaknesses were exposed.

This diagram shows the complexity and confusion around the cladding on Grenfell Tower.

A diagram from the Architects’ Journal magazine, illustrating who’s blaming who for the fire.
A diagram from the Architects’ Journal magazine, illustrating who’s blaming who for the fire.
The AJ 3 March 2020

The above diagram represents just a single element- the cladding. There are hundreds if not thousands of elements within a single building, all needing safety compliance approval.

How can councils, with already stretched resources and who are locked into legacy systems, be expected to audit and approve these? How can they confidently state that every element in every building meets approved safety standards, especially when, over time, elements may be repaired or even replaced? How can they confidently confirm that every intervention and maintenance undertaken in their stock hasn’t punctured a fire break, or damaged a sprinkler?

They can’t.

Together with the Hackitt Report, the current system of shuffling emails and spreadsheets around, which is demonstrably no longer fit for purpose, is a primary reason for the upcoming legislation.

What will this mean for councils? Until it is enacted we can’t be certain, but what we do know is that the legal case is clear — when it passes, the new Act will make compliance within digital platforms a necessity. Emailing Excel spreadsheets and a file based approach, with wet-signed certification, will not be acceptable, let alone appropriate. A little incentive to adopt innovation is that one stakeholder will no longer be able to blame another. Liability will be shared amongst all those seen to be negligent and they will subject to criminal prosecution.

Right now however, we have a more pressing issue. The survey of all buildings over 18 metres in height.

Back in May 2018 central government asked councils to identify all buildings in their area over 18m. In my experience, this tended to either be contracted out, or a painstakingly manual process of trawling council held records, Land Registry and a lot of Googling.

The former is usually expensive and the latter very hit and miss. Neither inspire confidence.

Then, in the summer of 2019 authorities were asked to survey all of those buildings that they had identified. That survey involved the registered owners of those buildings completing a questionnaire and the results being entered into MCHLG’s reporting system, DELTA.

But there are problems with this. How do we…

  1. identify all buildings over a threshold height?

And how do we do it in such a manner that we can be confident of the accuracy.

The ways in which I’ve seen it done have overly relied on manual data input and way too many spreadsheets. With all the will in the world, we are fallible, particularly when bashing away at Excel, entering dozens, if not hundreds of bits of repetitive data. Number 23 becomes number 32, and ‘yes’ ACM is present, easily becomes ‘no’ ACM isn’t present.

Small errors at one end of this system, will be compounded as they move through it, becoming less and less easy to spot and leading to potentially catastrophic consequences at the other.

Conclusion: people can’t be reasonably expected to do this and get it spot on 100% of the time, spreadsheets certainly aren’t fit for purpose, errors can’t be traced back and, ultimately, there needs to be a change in the recording, monitoring, and management culture.

Observations mean nothing, unless something is done. So what did we do?

Well, we had a go and designing a service.

Read Part 2 for details — how we moved 1,224 buildings on line.

Thank you

Local Government - London Borough

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