Contractor and architects the focus at inquiry

Contractor and architects the focus at inquiry

THE GRENFELL inquiry heard that contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’.

The second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. It is expected to last 18 months, with 200,000 documents – including emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released. Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation and cladding manufacturers Celotex and Arconic and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) opened proceedings.

‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’. That first week also heard refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key report.

However hearings were delayed due to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This move was granted recently, and the inquiry resumedRecently, testimony from Studio E staff admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’, and that it was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’.

Recently, emails between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova Warrington Fire saw admissions that plans to refurbish the tower were making ‘a crap condition worse’, and ‘no sprinklers [were] wanted’. Studio E’s lead designer Neil Crawford then alleged that Celotex ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ and ‘deliberately misled’ over its product’s safety ‘as if selling horsemeat as beef’.

The Guardian reported on more from Mr Crawford’s testimony, in which it was alleged that contractors were more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety. During discussions on installing cavity barriers in March 2015 in an email chain between Rydon, Harley Facades and Studio E, it was noted that an upgrade from 30 to 120 minutes fire resistance would cost £12,000, with Rydon’s contracts manager Simon Lawrence’s comments highlighted.

He stated that Harley ‘via their supply chain are questioning the rating of the cladding firebreaks’, and that ‘apparently by going to 2hrs as we discussed has a cost increase of around £12k’, with Mr Crawford agreeing with inquiry lawyer Richard Millett that there was ‘pressure on site’ to avoid recommending upgrading the barriers, after being asked whether ‘the main concern was cost and delay as opposed to fire safety’.

Mr Crawford responded that ‘I can’t speak on behalf of the other participants in that conversation but you might read that into what they’ve written, yes’, with the news outlet referring to a 2018 report by Arup’s Dr Barbara Lane that found there were ‘missing and defective’ cavity barriers, while horizontal barriers had been ‘incorrectly installed vertically’, and windows in individual flats ‘had no fire barriers encasing them’, with openings ‘surrounded by combustible material’.

Asked whether he had considered the fire performance of the building’s architectural “crown”, Mr Crawford said he ‘just understood it to be more aluminium panels’; and asked whether he gave ‘any thought to how a fire might be able to spread uninhibited’ across the crown ‘in the absence of any cavity barriers’, he stated that ‘in the absence of cavity barriers I would understand fire just to go straight out into the atmosphere.

‘I don’t know what I thought at the time. I wasn’t noting everything I thought consciously at the time’. Mr Crawford was also questioned about his ‘judgment’ in signing off window designs from Harley that included combustible material such as Styrofoam, Mr Millett asking ‘how could a drawing specification be signed off as compliant with architectural intent if in fact it did not comply with statutory requirements?’

Mr Crawford ‘repeatedly’ said he was commenting only from the view of ‘architectural intent’, and that it was Harley’s responsibility ‘to ensure the materials were compliant’. Mr Millet suggested it was a ‘manifest error for any architect’ to see styrofoam and approve it without compliance checks or confirmation that fire retardant had been added, Mr Crawford responding: ‘Not if you believed it was the responsibility of the sub contractor to ensure it was compliant – then you would assume they had exercised duty.’

The Independent also reported on testimony from architect Tomas Rek, who drew up specifications for the refurbishment, and who said he was ‘not involved’ in any discussion about fire performance of cladding panels, with the focus instead on ‘appearance and cost’. Mr Rek also said the client and cladding contractor were ‘motivated by cost concerns’ to switch to ACM, that he had ‘never previously worked’ with it, and did not know panels could be made with combustible plastic cores.

He also stated that he was not trained in using façade materials in overcladding systems, and was asked by Mr Millett how original plans for zinc panels ‘came to be dropped’ and ACM selected. He added: ‘Did you get the impression that Studio E was under pressure from the client to specify cheaper ACM material rather than zinc?’

Mr Rek replied that this was the case and came ‘from the client’, with the inquiry also shown an email to Mr Rek from Harley Facades’ Mark Harris, in which Mr Harris said that ‘from a Harley selfish point of view our preference would be to use ACM’, as it could be ‘confident about how much it would cost’.

Mr Rek also stated that despite drawing up a specification, he ‘did not check buildings regulations guidance about fire resistance and fire spread on external walls’, adding: ‘I do not recall discussing the fire rating or fire performance of polyethylene-based composite panels while I worked on the project. I also do not recall discussing whether these panels came with fire-retardant cores or whether any investigation on compliance with part B of the Building Regulations 2010 had taken place.’

On being asked if it ‘would have been important to familiarise himself’ with guidance on fire safety before drafting the specification, he added: ‘Retrospectively, it would have helped if I had a better understanding. It’s a lesson learned. But we had a fire consultant on the job and I considered fire-related issues quite a complicated subject outside of my competence.’

Material choices were made despite standardised specification documents issued by Mr Rek including a warning that ‘systemised building envelopes’ need to meet building regulations, and that ‘aluminium envelope systems do not normally have significant resistance to fire’. It also said use of any combustible material for insulation ‘might need to be considered’ as building height increased, with Mr Rek asked by Mr Millett if he ‘was aware of that as a general principle’.

In response, he replied ‘no’, and on being asked if he was aware of the concept of materials of limited combustibility’, he replied ‘I’m not sure’; Mr Millett concluding by asking if it was right to say Mr Rek was not aware of ‘what would constitute’ a material of limited combustibility’, to which Mr Rek responded ‘correct’.