“Regulation” gets a bad rap. It’s portrayed as an unfair burden on business, a drain on the economy, a barrier to innovation. Regulation is so unpopular, and so poorly understood, that one of Donald Trump’s first executive actions as President was to sign an order mandating the elimination of two federal regulations for each new one enacted. But regulation is not about doing what is best for business. Regulation, at its best, is designed to protect people, and it’s often designed to save lives. The June 14 fire at Grenfell Tower in London, which is believed to have killed at least 79 people, is yet another reminder of the need for effective regulations and regulatory enforcement.
It is no coincidence that some of the first true “building codes” came about out of concerns over fire. Even some zoning regulations are the result of concerns about the spread of fire. In many places in the United States, you can build a house only so close to your neighbor, so that in case one house catches fire it will not be able to spread to neighboring houses. In cases where structures share walls, there are strict requirements on what materials need to be used to prevent the spread of fire. Even within the construction of a single home there are specific requirements designed to contain fires. The same principles apply for commercial construction, and commercial building codes tend to be more strict. To this day, most of the regulations for our built environment are related to something called “Fire and Life Safety.” Basically, imagine the worst case scenario, and make sure the building is designed to ensure that everyone survives.
After years studying architecture in school, and a relatively brief career in the architectural design profession, I have vivid memories of the resentment with which my fellow students and colleagues viewed the various building codes and regulations we were faced with. Whether it was the fire code, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, or the energy code—a constant subject of scorn here in California—each level of regulation was viewed as an impediment to our creativity. And I say “our” because I’m sure at some point (or many points) in my past I too was cursing those regulations. As if we wanted to create buildings that would endanger or exclude people. As if our creativity was incapable of encompassing the rules of the game. We should really give ourselves more credit.
And now we have Grenfell Tower. Another example of a failure to protect people from a completely avoidable tragedy. I won’t pretend to know anything about building regulations in the United Kingdom, but it is not an exaggeration to say that things did not have to turn out this way. Initial evidence from Grenfell Tower has pointed to the cladding system as the main culprit for the rapidly spreading fire, but it seems there may have been multiple layers of failure between the refrigerator that started the fire and the inferno that engulfed the entire building. There are suggestions that recommendations to install fire sprinklers during the recent renovation were ignored, reports that fire doors in the building were missing entirely, and multiple warnings of safety violations that went unheeded. (This report from Engineering News-Record goes into much more detail about the specifics.)
To be clear, we don’t just need more regulation for regulation’s sake. (Full disclosure: in my day job I have contributed to research efforts that propose updates to California’s building energy efficiency standards and appliance standards, so I have been actively involved in the creation of regulations.) Regulations need to be carefully crafted, and the intent should be clear. They must also be enforceable, and actively enforced. Old, irrelevant, or contradictory regulations should be updated or eliminated. Regulation is complex, and should be considered with care and seriousness.
In the case of Grenfell Tower it quickly becomes obvious that a lack of clear guidance was a contributing factor. Initiatives to install fire sprinklers were interpreted as recommendations rather than requirements. Manufacturer statements on the limitations of the cladding material were overlooked or willfully ignored. Flammability tests did not consider the full assembly of how the cladding was actually installed on the building. All of these failures could have been prevented by carefully constructed and adequately enforced regulations.
But the rhetoric around regulations is often so toxic that it completely eliminates the possibility of a productive approach to pursuing regulations. A few months ago (on one of my favorite podcasts), Javier Palomarez, President of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said, “If you’re a small business in America today…you are dying under a regulatory construct and environment that is choking your business.” Even worse, the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom had taken to using the phrase “bonfire of regulations” to promote their policy of slashing through so-called "red tape." These are far from the only examples.
Well, there was bonfire, and people died. But it wasn’t from too much regulation. Seventy-nine people died horrific deaths in the fire at Grenfell Tower. Seventy-nine deaths that could have, and should have been prevented by regulation.