Grenfell designer compares insulation to horsemeat scandal

Grenfell designer compares insulation to horsemeat scandal

LEAD DESIGNER for Studio E Architects, Neil Crawford, alleged at the inquiry into the June 2017 fire that insulation manufacturer Celotex ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ over its product’s safety.

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 resumed. Recently, 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’.

Most 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’. The Guardian has now reported on Mr Crawford’s testimony, in which he alleged Celotex ‘deliberately misled’ the company over its insulation’s safety ‘as if selling horsemeat as beef’.

He added that Celotex, in his opinion, ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ in the way it described attributes of its foam insulation used on the tower, adding that ‘it’s masquerading horse meat and beef lasagne – and people bought it’. Despite not being a fully qualified architect, he was overseeing the building’s design when an ‘explicitly fire-retardant insulation was replaced with a combustible material’ by Harley Facades.

Mr Crawford also saw a marketing sheet for that product, which said it was ‘acceptable for use in buildings above 18m in height’ and had passed a full scale fire test, but one that had been carried out with cladding panels ‘less combustible than the plastic-filled materials proposed’ for Grenfell. He said that Celotex therefore ‘calculatedly sought to deceive based on the understanding that the average architect could have with the way they worded this document’.

The news outlet noted that while Celotex executives have not yet given evidence at the inquiry, it had already seen an email where head of technical Rob Warren said the fire ‘hasn’t got a tape measure and if it starts at the ground floor it will love to race up’. Mr Crawford also highlighted Exova’s responsibility ‘for all things fire-related’, and that he ‘relied’ on the company, which had been ‘fairly emphatic that the new insulation was appropriate to use’.

Despite this, Studio E nearly sacked Exova in 2012 ‘for failing to adequately scrutinise early proposals’, and it ‘never delivered a promised analysis of whether the cladding system was safe’ while other complaints from building contractor Leadbitter referenced Exova’s response to fire safety concerns from Grenfell Action Group (GAG), a group of concerned council tenants.

An email revealed that in October 2012, Leadbitter executive Colin Chiles told the architects: ‘I am not willing to commence the works until I receive demonstration that the fire safety of the estate has been considered on the design … This response received from Exova is in my opinion casual. Should I issue this to GAG it would further exacerbate an already high-risk project.’

A year later, Exova concluded that ‘the proposed changes will have no adverse effect on the building’, relating to building regulations about external fire spread, and added that ‘this will be confirmed by an analysis in a future issue of this report’, but this was ‘never done’. When asked by inquiry counsel Richard Millet why he had not followed this up, Mr Crawford responded that ‘my understanding was that they had been kept abreast of the development and the scheme’.