Editorial: The Eleventh Commandment

The Dekalog, filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1989 cinematic take on the Ten Commandments, remains a docudrama for our times. From his rundown flat in a Warsaw housing project, a father feeds numbers into a computer to calculate the ice thickness of the lake upon which his child plans to skate. The father perceives the computer to be infallible — like God — and you know what the gospel had to say about having other gods before Him. The computer gets it wrong, with tragic results.

So it was in London at Grenfell Tower, one of dozens of postwar housing towers that were built to the codes of their time and retrofitted years later in ways that were collectively deemed safe by the people who built it. Could such a fiery catastrophe happen in Canada? Most architects and industry experts will answer with near certainty: No, not here. Our National Building Code would prohibit Grenfell Tower’s lethal cladding system (aluminum lined with combustible polyethylene, with an uninterrupted airspace that fed the flames). And that preventive ethos extends across the codebook.   

“Our building codes are pretty sophisticated and pretty current because they’re constantly being updated,” says Vancouver architect James Cheng. The constant updates, of course, are from past missteps. Asbestos insulation and shoddy west-coast building envelopes were all once compliant with the codes of their day. “The code should be considered a ‘living document’,” subject to interpretation, challenge and change, he stresses.

Both the national and most provincial codes are among the strongest in the world, concurs Les Klein, principal at Quadrangle in Toronto. But architects have the breadth of knowledge to negotiate with regulators for design strategies that follow the intent rather than the letter of the code to ensure safety. “Many people think of it as absolutely prescriptive, a ‘thou shalt do this’ — but there is an incredible amount of interpretation,” says Klein. There has to be. It is not the words but the intent of the code that matters; following a laundry-list of code commandments would not account for unpredictable material and human idiosyncrasies. “Our societies have become so complex, and our duties have become specialized to the point where everyone has become an expert,” says Cheng, “but no expert is coordinating everything.”

Cheng notes that the safest place during a high-rise fire is almost always the building’s central stairwell, whose design regulations are coded to the hilt to ensure a sealed space to which a fire is unlikely to spread. Residents unfortunately are not always aware of that, risking instead to jump out of the windows or, as some outlets reported, that Grenfell residents were advised to stay in their units, where the danger is far greater. Our society has no comprehensive system of ensuring that a building’s occupants are properly trained in its use, care, and safety. Maybe we should.

In the meantime, it has fallen largely to architects to follow and oversee the eleventh commandment: Design and build properly, well beyond the checklist content of a codebook.