Grenfell engineers aimed to ‘massage’ fire safety strategy

Grenfell engineers aimed to ‘massage’ fire safety strategy

CONSULTANTS EXOVA Warrington Fire’s engineers were revealed to have set out to ‘massage’ the fire safety plan for Grenfell Tower to help it pass official checks, the inquiry heard.

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.

Opening weeks contained submissions for an overview of the primary refurbishment including cladding, the testing and certification; and fire safety measures including complaints and communications with residents. ‘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 at the start of this week.

Most 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’. Studio E also admitted it was so ‘green on process and technicality’ that staff would have to undergo ‘rapid training’, while the company ‘would not have been selected if there had been’ a procurement tender.

Its team ‘was not experienced in overcladding a residential tower block’, with Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) knowing ‘exactly what our skill set was’. The person responsible for ‘day-to-day management’ of the project was not fully qualified as an architect, while senior architect Bruce Sounes had not worked on a high rise building and had no experience with composite materials.

He also believed Studio E would not have won the job in a bid process due to a ‘lack of relevant experience’, and admitted ‘no knowledge’ of rapid fire spread; that he had not read regulations pertaining to cladding; did not know aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding panels were combustible, nor that they had previously caught fire on buildings; and ‘did not familiarise’ himself with relevant regulations demanding external walls ‘adequately resist the spread of fire’.

This meant he did not see a diagram that showed how external wall systems must meet safety rules, as well as information about previous cladding fires and diagrams that showed how fires could spread on high rise residential buildings. He also admitted he had not read regulatory guidance about designing cavity barriers, despite Studio E promising to ‘ensure that all designs comply with the relevant statutory requirements’ in client service lists.

The Guardian reported on emails revealed to have been sent between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova, which privately admitted that plans to refurbish the tower were making ‘a crap condition worse’, with plans to add additional flats around a single staircase was ‘not great’. An email in August 2012 was revealed from senior Exova consultant Cate Cooney, which came after speaking to Mr Sounes that month about the refurbishment plans.

Her email to colleague Andrew Martyn, which was sent four years before the refurbishment was signed off, read: ‘Basically I have told him we can massage the proposal to something acceptable, with separation, lobbies etc, but that there are approval risks in the project on the ff [firefighting] shaft/MOE [means of escape] front. They are making an existing crap condition worse so it’s a matter of working the worse [sic] bits outs and making the new stuff work. No sprinklers wanted.’

She also asked if Exova had any contacts at RBKC’s building control department responsible for approving the work’s compliance with building regulations. The inquiry also saw Mr Sounes asked more questions before being ‘taken ill after two hours of questioning’, and ‘appearing close to tears’. Inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick stated: ‘I’m very sorry to tell you that Mr Sounes has been taken ill and it’s not going to be possible for him to continue giving evidence today or even tomorrow’.

Before this however he responded to the Exova email, stating that it ‘raises a level of concern I was not aware of’, while having been asked if Studio E had considered installing sprinklers, he commented: ‘It wouldn’t be something we would hold a view on. We would have expected the fire consultant to recommend, or building control to advise any requirement. I don’t recall sprinklers being discussed or raised as something that may be needed.’